Opinion

The brilliance that residential schools could not stamp out

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: For two weeks, I lived immersed in a world built by Dene, on their land. A world that Canada still tries very hard to destroy.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, academic and musician and an instructor at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning.

I was nearing the end of the mandatory 14-day isolation period for non-essential workers in Yellowknife when the news first broke of the hundreds of children’s remains found in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Residential school survivors have told us over and over of the atrocities committed at these schools and of their friends’ and their siblings’ deaths at the hands of principals, teachers, nuns and priests. Thousands of Indigenous families across Canada have stories of stolen children taken to residential schools, some never to return home. To varying degrees, we carry the pain of that violence in our daily lives, whether it comes from residential schools, industrial schools, day schools, policing, prisons, sanitariums, the child welfare system or the myriad of other institutions, policies and laws that were designed to break the connection between Indigenous families and our lands.

Stealing kids breaks families. And dispossessing peoples of their lands is a violent and deplorable business, one that Canada has yet to reckon with.

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I was in Yellowknife because I was teaching at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, an Indigenous land-based, post-secondary education program in the North. We were running a hide-tanning course during the first two weeks of June along the Wiìliìdeh River (shown on maps as the Yellowknife River) in the territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, under the careful watch of our health and safety coordinator Noel Cockney, whose job has become quite complicated in the pandemic. We hosted 15 students, mainly from the communities of Dettah and Ndilo, with two excellent hide-tanning experts, Elders Madeline Judas from Wekweètì and Alice Wifladt from Ndilo. Charlene Liske, Dechinta’s land and cultural resources director, created a space for learning that felt like home for the Elders, students and kids, a small community on the side of the river that everyone wanted to visit, and no one wanted to leave.

We started the camp by thanking the harvesters who had taken special care of their harvests months earlier, knowing we would be using the hides. Three hides were gifted from the Beaufort Delta, and the rest were shared by Gordie Liske, Randy Baillargeon, Kyla LeSage and Justina Black after their harvest on the barren lands in February. In groups of two, students worked through the steps of taking the hair off, fleshing, soaking the hides in caribou brains (commonly used in traditional hide tanning), smoking and stretching. It was hard work, often continuing into the long, sun-lit evenings. Madeline and Alice were the sort of teachers I aspire to be—kind and gentle with the students, encouraging them at every step and creating a loving, learning community full of laughter, sharing and support. They made sure the students had space to create their own relationships with their hides and each other. There were never mistakes, only, “Well now that you’ve done that, you might need to do this.” Madeline quietly repeated, “You could do this, but it’s up to you.”

WAUB RICE: A diploma with the wrong name

Arriving the first morning, Mary Rose Sund­berg, a translator and language expert, reminded us of how to live together by embodying the Dene laws. She came each day, visiting the hide tanners and speaking Wiìliìdeh to the students. Berna Martin led us in a Feed the Fire ceremony. Cooks Irene Sangris, Brenda Michel, Karen and Marilyn Colins fed us well, and a team of strong arms and hearts from Dettah cut wood, set the fish net and made sure the community was kept warm and dry in tents and under tarps. Our students and staff brought their children, and Justina Black and Rena Mainville led the kids through a variety of daily land-based activities. And because it was a university course, we read, we heard lectures on self-determination and colonialism, and we thought critically about why reconnecting to our lands, to our bodies, to our minds, to our spirits and to each other was crucial. Shawna McLeod, who came with her daughter, showed us her beading, quill art and gorgeous baby belt, while another artist, Karen Wright-Fraser, shared the story of the Gwich’in Traditional Caribou Clothing Project and her journey of love and family through sewing.

We were awash in Dene brilliance. Brilliance that Dene resistance made sure was passed down to the next generation. Brilliance that residential schools could not stamp out.

Alice Wifladt sharpens her tools for fleshing and scraping moosehide. (Courtesy of Kyla LeSage/Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning)

Elder Alice Wifladt sharpens her tools for fleshing and scraping moosehide (Courtesy of Kyla LeSage/Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning)

Most of this hide-camp community attended residential school or were raised by parents who did, and in spite of those experiences, they were together on the banks of the Wiìliìdeh, speaking their language, preparing hides, taking care of each other and passing those practices down to the next generation. Children in this camp were cherished as wonderful gifts and teachers; their laughter carried through camp, reminding us to laugh and be silly with ourselves, reminding us that joy is the fabric of Indigenous life. On the very first day, Shihka Sundberg, a Grade 1 student at Kaw Tay Whee School in Dettah, wrote, “I love you” on a sticky note and stuck it to my coffee mug.

Gwich’in student Jacey Firth-Hagen from Inuvik reflected, “I am reconnecting with my ancestors and connecting to the land, my family and my community. It is all connected and makes me feel happy!”

Kyla LeSage scrapes a partially smoked moose hide (Courtesy of Kyla LeSage/Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning)

Kyla LeSage scrapes a partially smoked moose hide (Courtesy of Kyla LeSage/Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning)

Hide tanning is repetitious, careful and methodical work. The many hours spent with the caribou hides meant thinking with the ones who came before us and did this same work, thinking about how we were continuing this relationship to the land, the caribou, the harvesters and, of course, reflecting on our own lives and place in the world. For those two weeks, I lived immersed in a world built by Dene, on their land, using their own laws, ethics and politics. A world that Canada has tried very hard to destroy, a world that Canada still tries very hard to destroy.

Let the reckoning begin.

But how will Canada return land to Indigenous nations? How will Canada support us in regenerating our languages, economies and political cultures? How will Canada respect our jurisdiction and self-determination, particularly when we say no to pipelines or mines or clear-cuts? When will Canada stop demanding we extinguish our rights in land-claim agreements and instead enter into relations that affirm these rights and affirm our understandings of treaties? How much longer will Canada bolster the conditions that lead to more Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People, more children in the child-welfare system and more of our people incarcerated every year? These are important questions for Canadians.

Indigenous peoples, like the Dene on the shores of the Wiìliìdeh River, will continue to take care of each other, and we will continue to build a different future for our children by lovingly reattaching ourselves to our lands, cultures and languages, just as our ancestors intended. We will continue to build life in spite of your failed genocide.

We will continue to build Indigenous worlds out of nothing.


This article appears in print in the August 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Just as our ancestors intended.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.