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Leaving home to live at Indian Residential School was an inevitable event for young Bea Silver, a Sto:lo girl in Kilgard, Sumas. Attendance was compulsory for native children like her and her many older siblings who had already been attending since before she was born. They never talked about the school, but her brothers prepared her for it when they taught her boxing! Bea tells what it was like. Her memoir begins before school: a childhood in a small Indian Reserve, first surrounding the reader with her loving family. Many children in Beatrice's generation were taken from home by Indian Affairs agents when they were too young to be able to later recall that safety and certainty. This story allows the reader to walk in the little shoes of a girl who survived the infamous school. She did so by sheer force of will, generated by confidence in the love of her family and the strength of her seven-year-old identity.
The reader must be very brave to continue through this story, as Bea was brave, but they have Bea's guidance and discretion to keep them at a safe distance. This manuscript was developed in a series of talks which the author gave to a high school Art Activism class. In this way, the author learned how to deliver her story in a truthful, meaningful, and yet accessible way by speaking to those Grade 11 and Grade 12 students. Beatrice Silver told the students her stories and observations over many months, attending their visual art class, while they developed the paintings which are all featured in this book.
Warning: this book makes reference to emotional abuse, mental harm, corporal punishment and sexual abuse in Indian Residential School.
Bea built her career in education and First Nations leadership. After leaving Indian Residential School, she soon married and became a mother. The marriage was short-lived. As a single mother, Bea worked her way through college and university. She had lost Indian Status when she married her non-native husband and was therefore ineligible for any Band education funds. She became a primary school teacher, and then a school Principal. Eventually she held the position of Aboriginal Education Coordinator for Fraser Valley schools. Her leadership skills came into political use as the Chief of Sumas, her home community, where she acted to increase revenue streams to the community and to eject predatory and polluting companies from the reserve.
My family members had all been placed in residential schools and they carried the results of traumatic experiences that were not always visible. At least that trauma was not visible to me, not then. I see now that so many feelings and experiences were desperately hidden. Our family relationships were nothing like the foreign school text books “Dick and Jane” – early school readers which teachers tried to teach me to read from. Strange baby stories made up our reading program. These I learned to read in a snap, and found horribly boring even in grade one.
Strangely, my grade one teacher did not recognize that reading came easily to me. She was a First Nations woman from a nearby reserve, but that was not to be discussed. Her teaching style bore no warmth and her methods were strictly authoritarian, as prescribed by an unfamiliar pedagogy. The classroom teacher’s personal touch was absent, like most supervisors there. Encouragement of experiential or holistic learning, or enquiry methods that make learning enjoyable and progressive, did not exist in residential school teachers. They used punishment – including corporal punishment – to make us learn. The curriculum taught was very foreign indeed. Strange readers such as Dick and Jane were our only reading materials, written about perfect white families.
No, I did not – nor did my siblings and reserve friends – play in pretty dress clothes and our parents didn’t wear suits and tailored dresses with high heels. I didn’t run about carrying a fluffy cute teddy bear named Tim, I didn’t have a cat named Puff, and we did not have a perfectly behaved dog named Spot. My home life was very different, quite the opposite, of Dick and Jane’s home life. We had a few pets but that was at my Aunt and Uncle’s homestead in Leq’á:mel, Deroche. On our Summer breaks we went to their home and lived there happily and carefree. Away from the horrors of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School.
My Aunty Annie and Uncle Alfred in Deroche – now called Leq’á:mel – lived a quiet life with a few animals I loved. They had a loveable scruffy dog called Buster who I looked forward to seeing every Summer in Leq’á:mel. My aunt and uncle’s totally humble home in Leq’á:mel was home to me too. Once Leq’á:mel and Kilgard were one reserve but the government divided us.
My aunt and uncle had a huge farm setting to roam carefree within. I spent many hours with Buster our dog. I ran about so much with that dog I fell and badly broke my arm. I can still see my young adult brother-cousin Merle coming in looking very forlorn: after many hours out to neighbours all around, he could not find anyone who would drive me the twenty miles or so to the hospital. So there I remained without medical attention all Summer, except for the comfort my mom and aunt could give me. Today my good doctor says it can be repaired now, but why? After many years of self consciousness and being made fun of, I’m comfortable with my physical flaws, they are part of me. I am who I am and proud to be who I am. I miss those days of long ago, being carefree, enjoying food from the backyard and fresh wholesome milk from my aunt and uncle’s productive cow, Beauty. Her good milk was used in much of our foods.
We ate traditional foods especially wild vegetables foraged for in nearby woods. We now call those foods medicine. Mom and Auntie Annie worked hard together picking stinging nettles, berries, shoots and other vegetation to make delicious and healthy meals for all of us while dad and Uncle Alfred worked hard. Uncle Alfred had two horses, Prince and Princess, which he made great use of in his fields. They plowed the ground and dad and Uncle Alfred used their help in logging the trees. By the time I clearly remember them, the beautiful Clydesdale horses had been put out to pasture and served as pets for us to ride bareback or to just sit with.
All that which was joyful and comfortable and familiar to me, I was soon to realize, would become very distant: only memories to hold close.