Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Challenges. Discussion »
MANISTEE, MICHIGAN Eighty one year old Jennie Blackbird, who is referred to as the Grandmother of the Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong Territory, spent six years at an Indian residential school in Bradford, Ontario during her formative years. Some six decades later as a survivor of an Indian school, her memories that linger in her mind and heart are still profoundly painful.
Jennie Blackbird - Walpole Island First Nation
On Saturday, at the 19th Annual Anishinaabe Family Language & Culture Workshop, surrounded by friends who sat with her to provide her with support, Blackbird recounted some of the experiences as she read her presentation from a spiral notebook. She told those who attended her workshop she stayed up until 3 am to write it down. She humorously said she does not use a computer.
Though she has attended the language camp for several years, Saturday's workshop was the first time she presented on her experience. At one point, she was overcome with emotion, choked up and tears welled in her eyes.
“Can you imagine your children being snatched away from you?”
“Well, that is what happened to us.”
Blackbird told a story of a woman on Walpole Island who went to the grocery store and came home to discover that some governmental Indian agent had shown up and taken all of the woman's children from the home and placed them in Indian residential school.
“It has taken me a long time to even do this workshop. When Kenny Pheasant first asked me to do a workshop on Indian residential schools, I could not because I was not ready,”
“I told Kenny, I was not ready. I think many of us lived in denial about it. My own husband, who spent 11 years at a residential school, would never talk about it. We were married for 24 years before he died about 20 years ago and he would never talk about it with even me.”
“Have you ever noticed in all the pictures you see of Indian kids at Indian schools that none of them are ever smiling?”
“We were hungry all the time!”
“It was a terrible time. Our mail was monitored. In letters written home, if students wrote to their parents that they missed them, that section will be deleted. Even the letters that came in were monitored and changed so we could not keep that connection with family.”
Blackbird described how even today some of the memories are blocked out of their minds. She has sisters who cannot remember what month or year they were taken from their home. It is like they have blocked them out. She said she and her sisters do not talk about attending the Indian residential school.
“One time I asked one of my sisters about school and she put her head down and told me she did not want to talk about it,”
Even though the Anishinaabe language was forbidden at the school, fortunately, Blackbird was able to retain her tribal language. A respected elder, she has received numerous awards and accolades that include:
“I remember so many things my grandfather taught me,”
“He taught me that our language was the first language. It was here thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. My grandfather told me 'language speaks to who we are.' There are no swear words in our language. There are no dirty words.”
“He also taught me that Truth was here before the air. Creator is Truth. He put us here,”
she told the workshop participants.
She also said her grandfather taught her that when tears come, it means we are to speak with our hearts.
Blackbird did just that when her tears came on Saturday: She spoke from her heart.
posted July 30, 2012 7:20 am edt