Monday, November 10, 2008
1940. Gitanmaax Village (B.C.). Mr. Art Lavalle, Indian agent, Babine Indian Agency, accompanied by Constable Allan White of the Northwest Provincial Police, bang on the door of Simogyat Gyat'm Gyamk, the leading hereditary chief of the village. Indian Agent Lavalle declares that he has the authority to apprehend 5 of his school-aged children and send them to the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School. The novelty of a whiteman and a policeman visiting catches the attention of all the children, giggling in a shoving match to get the best view are immediately repelled by the stinky smell of the whitemen. Wide-eyed they giggle as they listen to the strange sounds coming from their mouths. The children are surprised that their father also uses the funny language. They see one whiteman who seems in charge introduce the other man with the funny hat and clothes. White nods to the chief. The children step back with their father as he shields them with his arms from the whitemen. They have never seen their father angry nor raise his voice. He did both in front of these strange men. The chief turns to his children and firmly tells them to go to their mother. They knew something was wrong; they wonder why was father angry and raising his voice. They see their father signal the end of the meeting and moved to close the door. Surprised, they see Constable White placed his shiny boot to stop closure. Father is frantic and pushes hard to keep the whitemen from entering their home. Father yells at his wife to take the children and run from the house. The simogyat was no match for the two whitemen pushing. The policeman was quick to catch the littlest child. Both the simogyat and his wife cannot leave without the little one, so they relent. The one in charge deliberately and forcefully said something to the simogyat. They see their father crumble into a chair in despair and on the verge of crying. With great effort, he turns to the mother of the children and instructs her to pack the belongings of the 5 oldest and make them ready to go with the whiteman. The children are taken aback as mother vigorously protests. The younger ones begin to cry, scared, not understanding what is happening. The older ones are frightened, the little ones could see it in their faces. Even at this moment of great upheaval, the simogyat quickly composes himself in keeping with being a simogyat quiets the children. Another constable arrives to reinforce his associates. They stand waiting. In obedience, the 5 oldest stand, each with a cardboard box full of their personal belongings. The oldest one has a store bought suitcase. The simogyat calls each of them and presses a silver dollar in their hands. The oldest one gets 3. He gives them final instructions to be obedient and to come back educated. Each turn to embrace mother. They see a deep sadness on her face but they are trained properly. The simogyat father and the sigidimhanak mother accompany the children to the taxi. After final good-byes, the taxi is off to the train station. The police linger to punctuate their authority to serve as a further warning not to make trouble. The Gitxsan parents stand fast momentarily, already feeling weight of shame, guilt, and embarrassment all at once as they watch the taxi disappear. With a little one in each of their arms, they hold them a little closer. They retreat into their house without the vital presence of 5 of their older children. Mother drags herself into her bedroom, angry and bewildered, wondering why her husband, always the defender and protector, was powerless to stop the Indian agent from stealing her children. The sigidimhanak mother was never to be the same. Even though she is driven to continue to fulfil tribal obligation imbued by her mother and grandmother, she succumbed to alcoholic drinking to numb the lonliness and pain of losing her children. As a good provider, the Simogyat continued work the territories associated with his extended family. Sitting by the camp fire, he knew Gitxsan world was changing, imposed by these amsiwaa, white people. He also surmised that the same drama was unfolding for other 64 extended families. He shook his head realizing that future hereditary leaders will be profoundly burdened in the disruption of vital gwalx ye`inst and will be challenged to give expression to their inherent daxgyat in the new world. Thinking of all the hlguubawilsihlxw (the heirs to his extended families kal ink, the invaluable beautiful and elegant Treasure Box), he invoked his ancient songs seeking security, comfort, to appeal to the ancestors for help and assistance for the people.
Between 1940 to 1980, although not known, an estimated 1,560 and 2,600 school-aged children were apprehended from 65 Gitxsan extended families and interned in one of Canada's Indian Residential Schools for sustained periods of up to 13 years with summer breaks. Today the Gitxsan live with self imposed silence and endemic multi- and inter-generational impacts, yet untold. They ponder the truth-seeking, truth-telling, and authentic reconciliation as promised through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.