What Did Indian Residential School Do?
Split up families: Parents and grandparents were heartbroken at the loss of their reason for living. “A lot of alcoholism started when the kids were taken away.” At the schools, siblings were separated. Boys and girls were punished for talking to one another.
Cultural breakdown: Being away from extended families kept children from acquiring generations of wisdom. Ties to the land were broken, values and customs disrupted. Years later, when they came back looking to learn, many elders had passed on.
Silence the language: Losing their common tongue, nsyilxcən, crippled the relationship between children and their families and elders. Some kids were able to keep nsyilxcәn going in secret at the schools, but they were the exception. Grandparents quit passing the language on because they decided it would not benefit the children, mainly out of a fear of punishment and cultural shaming
Destroy self-esteem: In the schools, children were told they were stupid and that their culture and language was “of the devil.” Repeated abuse laid down an internal sound track of negativity and SHAME that, for many, got louder as they grew older.
Undermine the future: Research shows that trauma changes how young brains develop. When we are prevented from releasing overwhelming feelings of fear, grief, or pain, those feelings remain unresolved. Instead of going away, these traumas find other ways to come out: substance abuse, self-harm and suicide are common. So is re-enactment, where survivors seek out abusive relationships or take on abusive behaviors themselves.
Breakdown of family systems: Instead of learning the nurturing way of our ancestors, students learned from their teachers to be unloving, demanding caregivers. This left them unprepared to create healthy family situations once their own children were born, passing the trauma on to the next generations. As their own parents did not teach them these skills, they lacked the traditional teachings and nurturing.
Resilience of Culture and Human Survival For many former students, the motivation to heal grew out of love for their children and grandchildren. The return to culture has also been an important source of healing. And the friendships that made the painful years at residential school bearable remain a source of strength. Indeed, it has been the dedication of former students that brought the deep injustice of the schools out into the light and helped create the awareness that has put us, as a Nation, on the healing path.
The Syilx people are gaining strength every day. As a Nation, we are working to reclaim and restore our traditional Syilx ways of being and knowing. We are the unconquered people of this land and have lived with our mother earth from the beginning of time. The Creator has entrusted us with the responsibility to live in harmony with each other and maintain a balance with all things so that future generations may thrive here also.
Starting in the 1970s, Indigenous people across Turtle Island participated in a cultural revival that went hand-in-hand with roadblocks and demonstrations. By the end of the 1970s, the En’owkin Centre was open – giving our people education grounded in a Syilx worldview, and the Round Lake Treatment Centre had begun – offering a way to well-being rooted in Indigenous values.
Indian Residential School reunions began to be held, and former students supported one another to make change. Their courage and their tireless voices spurred governments to action, creating the awareness and the supports available today.
The way to well-being is unique for each person. For many former students, the land and the culture are a conduit of healing. Breaking the silence has been important —whether through therapy, support groups, or by sharing experiences with family. For many, the path began when they faced the results of destructive patterns in their lives: a health crisis, a marriage breakup, or the impacts on their kids.
In learning about the Syilx people and our Indian Residential School experiences, it is important to remember that we survived. We are still here.
Today, the practice of our culture is a source of pride and honor. Community-based language revitalization is a reality. The words that were silenced by the Indian Residential Schools are being spoken again in daycares and schools, on the internet and in our meeting places.
Syilx families continue to be united by the gathering of foods on the land. We harvest meat and fish, pick berries, dig roots and gather medicine. We continue to practice the ceremonies that demonstrate respect for the tmixʷ (all living things).
Put somewhere: “Lim’ limpt to those that held onto and carried the Sweat Lodges and Winter Dance Ceremonies. We have a way back to ourselves.
We are strong. We are warriors. We are resilient because we are here despite everything that we went through. We have rallied. We have persevered. We are coming back to the strength of being Syilx—for all time.
Syilx Members Create Awareness
In 1995 the “Forbidden Culture” documentary directed by Tracey Bonneau interviewed Syilx Indian Residential School survivors who attended St. James Mission at Cranbrook, BC. In 2001, another film produced was “Survivors of the Red Brick School House”. This film was made by a group of former Syilx students of the Indian Residential School at Cranbrook. The group was led by Virginia “Virg” Baptiste, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, who recalled how her mother was locked in the cellar of the school with nothing to eat for two days. Virg herself arrived in 1955 speaking no English. She left in 1963 with her language and culture stripped away. Her brother Bugs was crippled by the extreme beatings he received at the school. Virg and other survivors were tireless advocates for justice and their efforts were an essential contribution to awareness and change.