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Residential school surviviors come home

By Keith Howard

The Gitxsan feast hall festivities in the Gitanmaax Community Hall in Hazelton, B.C., have barely kicked into second gear when Rev. Jamie Scott, the United Church's officer for residential schools, leans over to me. Drums and voices pulsate. Scott points to a drummer with a young child strapped to his back. Immersed in the swirling dancers and moving through his father in time with the drumbeat, the child looks serene.

"That's the way to learn about your culture," shouts Scott with a smile.

The image stands in stark contrast with much older images. The memories of many in the hall contain mental snapshots, burning like hot coals, of other children, some as young as six years old. They are being rounded up by the RCMP or Indian agents. Trains carry them away to the residential school the federal government and the United Church run in Edmonton. For their own good, they are told. Some hide out on trap lines until the last of the trains have left; others simply run away. The vast majority make the trip.

Five hundred people from all the Gitxsan territories gather in the Gitanmaax feast hall this sunny early-spring afternoon. They are here for Hla Gwxhs Bekg'um, a potlatch ceremony to mark the symbolic return of 22 of their children who were taken from the community and who suffered abuse at the Edmonton Indian Residential School.

The United Church and the federal government are here too. Officially they host the event and share the $50,000 tab. On another level they are very much outsiders and guests, profoundly aware of their illiteracy in the language and customs of the feast hall and aware, too, that control of the events lies neither with the church nor the government -- an unusual occurrence in the daily lives of both.

To be born a Gitxsan means to be born into one of four pdek (clans) -- Fireweed, Wolf, Frog or Eagle -- and to have a place within one of 62 wilps (houses). To be redeemed means reclaiming name and place at the table of your house and acceptance of the privileges and obligations of that name and place.

The terrifying and devastating impact of residential schools schools upon many who attended them has been well-documented. For those survivors, dysfunction continues to radiate like waves from a stone dropped in a pond.

The effect of residential schools upon Gitxsan family life and culture was ruinous. Children grew up without language or a sense of territory, family or clan; hence many of the Edmonton survivors did not know their place within the feast hall. (In traditional Gitxsan society, no practical separation exists between physical, spiritual and emotional place -- to accept one's privileges and obligations within the community means taking one's seat in the feast hall and vice versa.) Some children who were abused became carriers of abuse. Some gained skills; but most returned home with a sense that they did not fit. They were not Indian; they were not white.

On the whole, the schools turbocharged the cycle of addiction, abuse, depression and alienation so common on First Nations reserves.

The claims of the 22 Gitxsan survivors at the Hazelton feast are among the 18,000 lawsuits the federal government estimates will be filed by Natives across the country. This group of survivors chose to participate in an alternate dispute resolution (ADR) process instead seeking redress through the courts. ADRs can be less traumatic than litigation, and hold some promise of healing cultural, family and community wounds that courts won't address (see separate story on page 24 in the print issue of The United Church Observer).

The Hazelton ADR project was only the second of 12 attempted ADRs to reach settlement. In this the feast and the process out of which it grew are historic. It took four years to negotiate. Settlement includes apologies, financial compensation and help in dealing with a legacy of addictions and other challenges. But perhaps, above all it involves being received back into The People. In religious language, the survivors seek redemption.

The Gitxsan ceremony that forms the centrepiece of this feast runs like this this:

Jim Angus, a Gitxsan chief and former president of British Columbia Conference, functions as overseer. He bangs his staff on the wooden floor of the hall and calls out the name of each survivor. Each then makes his or her way from outside the hall to stand in front of the assembly. Angus then calls out the name of the Simoigyet (Chief) of the house from which the father of the survivor came. The Simoigyet comes forward, accompanied by others from the wilp. Gitxsanimax words are spoken, often followed by a dance, song or cleansing ceremony. The Simoigyet then places a blanket -- or a vest symbolic of the blanket -- around the survivor signifying that they are now embraced by the power of the wilp. The one-who-was-lost-but-is-now-found is then led to their place at the table of the wilp.

The survivors show much courage asking for this potlatch. Some lives, bent if not broken, have left wounds in the community. Now publicly they declare a desire for different lives and pledge to take the actions necessary to fulfil their obligations.

The Gitxsan community does not offer any cheap or easy grace. Chief after chief rises to say clearly, "Welcome home children. You have taken the first step but there remains immense work to do. You have much to learn." The chiefs commit themselves to help but no doubt remains about individual responsibility.

I wonder how the survivors coming to the feast hall so late in life can possibly learn the nuances and intricacies of a culture from which they were snatched so young.

I wonder about the church.

It has taken an immense effort to settle these 22 cases. How will we ever respond to the 1,200 that are estimated to come our way? At a deeper level I wonder about our commitment. To put it mildly, our record of responding to issues involving First Nations has been underwhelming. Members, for example, donated more in a few months for Hurricane Mitch relief than they have during the entire nine years of the Healing Fund campaign.

As the welcoming home ceremony plays repeatedly, I become increasingly awed by the persistence of that Power that seeks redemption for the lost, the battered, and the alone.

Faced with people so scarred and aware of the massive challenges confronting most First Nations communities, I wonder if the challenge of salvation proves too great. How easy to be seduced by despair, to give them up as lost; and yet, obviously not - to those who love them; to the One who continues to love them.

I wonder if God feels the same about us as a church.

I wonder, too, about the role of facing and confessing truth in the process of redemption. The stark, honest declaration of what is, what was and what is no longer.

Marion Best, a past moderator, delivers the United Church's apology, her voice full of emotion at the image of children digging graves for other children who died while at the school.

"The removal of children from families and communities, the punishment exacted for speaking Gitxsanimax in residential schools and the disruption of Gitxsan spirituality and tradition are wrongs which cannot be excused. For our role we offer our profound apology," she says.

When Best finishes, the survivors do not leap to their feet and say, "Oh, it's alright. We know the church meant well and that you are good-intentioned people. We exempt you."

But forgiveness gains a toehold, some traction.

The precise order remains unclear. Theologically, forgiveness comes first, followed by a response of repentance and new living. It may not be so straightforward in the living as in the saying. Within the Gitanmaax feast hall there remains a sense of wait-and-see -- for the church, Canada and the survivors. Maybe, if our lives reflect our words, forgiveness might be offered.

Good potlatch manners require gifts. Helpers distribute loaves of bread, crackers, juice boxes, sandwiches and fruit. When I give some to the woman seated across the table, my depleted pile is soon replenished. In my good intentions, I have again misunderstood.

The Gitxsan have a custom whereby those who host a feast give a gift to those whom they will hold accountable to convey an honest account of the day's events. As representative of the government and the United Church, Rev. Brian Thorpe circulates among the hall, distributing $10,000 in 50s, 20s, 10s and other denominations. Acceptance of the gift seals the covenant.

I was given $20. I took it. So to this I bear witness:

We believe the accounts of the 22 Gitxsan survivors of the Edmonton Residential School and, as a church, extend apology for the abuse suffered at the school. We recognize the impact upon the Gitxsan culture, repent of our involvement and mourn past and continuing consequences. We accept our responsibility and pledge ourselves to be active participants in the work of healing. We are not in control of the healing or the forgiveness we seek and need or desire to enable. Our actions and the spirit of our living are being watched for signs of a humble spirit and a contrite heart.

The Gitxsan survivors have been welcomed back home in the proper manner.

Rev. Keith Howard is an Observer columnist, B.C. Conference staffperson and minister at Pilgrim United in Victoria.

Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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