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I dug burial sites to address Indigenous erasure – and my own family trauma

When I has been On the 12th, I buried my father alive. I’m not saying that literally, but sometimes it feels like it. I used to tell people he was dead. This truth was more digestible and less tragic to accept than the reality. I imagined her in a cemetery, one of those unmarked ones found at residential school grounds, but buried deep within me. It’s a type of grief that I carry with me as I analyze all the systems that have destroyed us.

When I was younger, I didn’t think in terms of systems, just experiences. When I was in college my father having been removed from my life for years I started questioning my family history and how my father could have done what he did and I started researching the Sixties Scoop.

The Sixties Scoop refers to child protection policies in Canada from the 1950s to the 1980s that forcibly removed tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their families (usually without consent), placing them in white foster homes. My paternal grandfather was one of those children. During my research, I came across a kind of personal advertisement in a newspaper: a boy named Arthur, who was allegedly kidnapped during this movement, was to be “adopted”. Some children’s names were later changed so their loved ones couldn’t find them, and to this day people are reconnecting with their long-lost loved ones.

Adopt Indian and Metis (AIM) program administrators believed that if the children were removed from their homes early enough, they would not “come out” as Aboriginal. John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a key proponent of the creation and spread of the residential school system, told the House of Commons in 1883:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, training, and way of thinking are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. I have been strongly urged, as head of the department, that Indian children should be removed from parental influence as much as possible, and the only way to achieve this would be to place them in central industrial training schools where they acquire the habits and ways of thinking of white men.

AIM reinforced Macdonald’s belief, creating what is considered a tragic chapter in the Sixties Scoop, further severing Aboriginal family ties after the residential school era. Families have been displaced and disrupted, and the tradition of transmitting oral history, language and legends has been broken.

When the children were abducted, our ties to our identity were severed, and that loss still reverberates today. Like the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop was part of a larger plan to “kill the Indian in the child.”

But did they kill the Indian in the child, or did they kill something entirely different?

When I read Arthur’s advertisement, which appeared in the Canadian newspaper Regina Leader-Post on November 14, 1972, I saw this young boy, and I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. Did he and his siblings also have pictures of themselves in the newspapers somewhere? I think of my father and the upheavals in my family. I think of the intergenerational trauma that seeped into my life like the water cycle. If residential schools were the groundwater, then the 60s Scoop would be the sweat, and my father, the direct descendant of a scoop victim, would be the cloud.

Was I the rain? Release all this inherited violence through my words?

I am Cree, Métis and I also occupy white spaces in cities. People ask me what I am every week. They call me exotic and racially ambiguous. But if you’re native, you can recognize me instantly. I was conceived in the Canadian Rockies and ran through canola fields on the plains, and now my feet tread through the brick buildings of New York. I am Indian, Native, Native, Native. I am a smudger, an attentive student, a dream catcher weaver, a drum maker, a sweaty girl and a storyteller.

The child author with his father.

Courtesy of Chyana Marie Sage

I remember a time when my father was in my life. I was 7 years old and we were sitting in a circle with the flame as the center. I looked down at my black combat boots. Looking up from the bare, scarred legs, I met my father’s eyes. He looked at me, the glow of the embers illuminating his high cheekbones, which cast a shadow under his buffalo eyes. My buffalo eyes. The flame spat and crackled at my feet downstairs. He opened his mouth and told stories about the Witigo, an evil, cannibalistic spirit that prays on the human spirit. I went to pee in the forest. My dad called me, “Make sure Witigo doesn’t come looking for ‘chu.” I went in and out as fast as I could.

I’m now 28, haven’t seen my dad in over 10 years and can’t remember the specifics of Witigo, but I want to access my roots. He went back and forth in prison throughout my life, and when he was incarcerated, we disavowed him. He was no longer our father or our husband. It has become our cemetery.

I reached out to my dad earlier this year to see if he would be willing to share stories and questions about his childhood. The days went on and his silence grew deeper. I realized that I might not get answers from him.

I knew my father had learned all these stories about Witigo from my grandfather, whom I had not spoken to since my father’s final conviction. Earlier this year, deep in the process of writing my memoir, I reached out to my grandfather on Facebook and asked if he would be willing to share some of our stories with me.

A few days later I received a call from an unknown number from Vancouver, Canada, the salt water shores where I was born.

“Tansi! A booming voice jubilantly bellowed the word scream for ‘hello’.

“Who is it? I asked, even though I knew who it was.

“Mah, it’s your grandfather Frank!” We both started laughing. We chatted for a few moments. Then he said, “I thought… I don’t remember all the stories, but I remember a really good one, huh. It may be time to tell you about your grandfather’s life. Before we hung up the phone, we said, “I love you,” and even though this man hadn’t been in my life since I was a young girl, nothing felt more natural.

When my grandfather and I spoke again the next day, it was like there was never a reason for us to be absent from each other’s lives. Amid the lingering and heartbreaking pain of my father’s incarceration for molesting my older sister, I never had time to mourn the loss of my paternal grandparents. We had simultaneously mourned the ultimate betrayal and the loss of our father.

Talking to my grandfather, I realized everything I had inherited from him: among them, his way of telling stories with humour, seriousness and holiness. The way he laughs at his own jokes. The way he frankly talks bad shit and makes you laugh moments later. Storytelling runs in my blood. And even if I wanted to deny my father, he will always be a part of me, like his father is a part of him.

If you compare my appearance to my father’s, you’ll see our high cheekbones, not-too-wide smiles, and dark brown eyes that light up amber in the sun. We have the same face shape with a nose that points down when we smile, and we inherited everything from my grandfather.

The author with his paternal grandfather, who as a child was taken from his family.
The author with his paternal grandfather, who as a child was taken from his family.

Courtesy of Chyana Marie Sage

But what about the things we don’t want to inherit? The things we reject? I see and felt how my father inherited this violence from my grandfather, passing it on, and how it created a death in our home: his own.

My grandfather was a violent man. Even though the man I knew was never violent, I discovered through conversations with my mother that the man my father knew growing up was quite different. When we spoke on the phone, I asked my grandfather a complicated question: “Where do you think the violence comes from?” He paused before answering. “I would say it is from them ripping us out of our home.”

My grandfather then told me the story of when he and his siblings were taken from their mother and how something inside him died that day. A hardness took hold of his childhood and followed him for years. “Too many years,” he said. I always knew him as a big, tough, strong man with those old ideals of masculinity running through his blood, but when he told me his story, tears flowed freely down his face.

Intergenerational trauma describes how traumatic journeys down our line, and the Sixties Scoop and the residential school system are two obvious contributors to my family. What happened continues to hurt survivors and even their children’s children. A collective trauma. A break in the line. As I begin to process what happened to my ancestors, I can feel the residue of the abrupt collapse of a family structure. I can’t help but wonder how different our family would have been if my grandfather hadn’t been taken away and exposed to the abuse he endured in all those foster homes. And so I mourn what could have been: a healthier, happier us.

Most of us have been touched from all sides of the family. My mother’s paternal grandmother’s name is Alice, but we call her Chickadee. She is a small but lively Cree woman, made of bannock and blueberries. She spent time in Grouard boarding school but never talked about what happened to him there. When the government started digging up graves at school sites, she was one of the survivors to pinpoint exactly where they buried the children.

When I listen to the stories of my grandfather and grandmother Chickadee, I think of Arthur. I think of how missing children end up in newspapers, on milk cartons, on billboards, and I can’t help but think of my grandfather – the original disruption of our lineage. When my grandfather came out of the child welfare system, he hadn’t seen his siblings in years. He hadn’t seen the youngest for 20 years. They were all scattered with different names in different foster homes with white, often abusive families.

What happens to lost children? What were the repercussions when the government declared the stolen children to be “found” children and then presented them as adoptable?

I used to tell people my dad was a ghost. After all, he was my graveyard. My forgotten. My cover. The one where someone should point to the site and say, “It happened here. If you start digging, you will find it.

Well, I dug it up and pieced it together to make sense of our story. I dug it up and traced our past through it to discover a strong connection and to understand why so many of my fellow native people are suffering in all the ways my family has suffered.

And I’ll keep digging to make sure I don’t let the cycle overtake me.

The Huffington Gt

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