No longer strangers, no longer afraid
As long as we look out at each other only through the masks of our composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But as the masks drop and we see the suffering and courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings. ~ F. Scott Peck, The Different Drum
A young Cowichan woman was among the people who signed up for the first storytelling class I taught after moving to Vancouver Island. The class was being held on her people’s traditional territory, long ago lost to colonizers.
For the first three sessions she sat quietly. Although she participated in the exercises and group work, she did so hesitantly. Still, she kept coming back.Not until the fourth session did she muster the courage to share her story. Through her eyes we saw the stern man who bullied her family into letting her go. We saw her family’s tear-streaked faces. We wept for her homesickness as she lay on a cot in a drab dormitory room. We ached as she was punished for speaking her language.
As she quietly but confidently told her story, she changed for us. She was no longer the nearly invisible young woman on the edge of the group. The gift of her story, painful though it was, was like opening a box. Suddenly we saw the treasure that lay within.
Her story was both personal and universal.
In the years since then, I have heard many more stories of the residential school system whose agenda was bluntly articulated by Sir Duncan Campbell Scott: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian problem.”
At the time the system was developed, Scott was head of the Department of Indian Affairs. He is often quoted as saying the purpose of the schools was “to take the Indian out of the Indian.”
The wounds from this government-supported initiative to erase cultures, languages, and the very essence of identity run deep. Canada is not alone in being slow and inadequate in understanding why such awful wounding is not something people can simply “get over and move on”.
The young Cowichan woman’s story was an important part of the education of a small group of storytelling students. It’s harder to hang onto the sense of Otherness that divides us when we listen to each others’ stories with an open heart.