Editors Note: Today is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It is commemorated annually and was established by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness of the needs of indigenous peoples globally. Unconditionally Her’s Lorna Dancey is passionate about this cause and has made it her life’s mission to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Today, in Unconditionally Her, we share Lorna’s first-hand story of Mary and we honor her life story. May we all smile as Mary smiles when we look back on our life.
Mary sat down at her table and could hear the infectious laughter of her granddaughter enter the kitchen before she walked in. Her sweet little face looked up at her with a toothless grin as she sat down for a snack of warm bannock and blueberry jam. Mary smiled to herself, her granddaughter was starting her first day of school in a few days and the thought brought back so many memories for Mary of her first day, so long ago. As she ate, Mary’s allowed herself to remember that day…
She tilted her head looking up at her older sister with an anxious grin on her face. She slid her tiny hand into hers and found comfort in the small gesture as it set her mind at ease knowing she wouldn’t have to face the day alone. Mary was 6 years old and it was her first day of school. She was uneasy about the day and wondered if she would make any friends or learn the new language her sister told her about. All her life she spoke Cree, and now a different language was being forced on her and she didn’t understand why. Marys’ sister knew she was nervous so the day before, she decided to teach her an English word to start preparing her for school. They took turns practicing and it had taken Mary an entire day to learn how to say it. Hello…
They started off on their mile-long journey as the cool morning breeze gently played with the fallen leaves that covered their path. Summer was saying goodbye as Mary skipped ahead imagining a new world filled with endless possibilities. She swung her tin lunch bucket carelessly back and forth kicking rocks with her rubber boots stopping along the way to pick a few of the last remaining berries of the season to ease the hunger in her belly. As Mary continued, a sense of sadness overcame her. She stood for a moment and realized she wished her mom was the one walking alongside of her. She didn’t remember much of her anymore, it had been 3 years since the man who had claimed to have loved her, shot and killed her. For the longest time, Mary didn’t know what death meant and waited by the window for her to wake up and come back home.
After her mom died, life fell apart for all of them. There was no one to care for the 10 children and they were scattered around, given to whoever would take them in. Luckily she and her sister went to a kind family from Imperial Mills. They taught them the ways of their life, living off the land and how to survive in the bush. They learned about making bannock, picking berries. She learned how to preserve them along with fishing, hunting and trapping. Life was hard and she was often hungry, but she will always be thankful to the elders who gave her a second chance at a real home.
Marys’ sister ran up to her and grabbed her hand just as she was about to cross the train tracks. There around the corner stood the old one-room schoolhouse. Little did she know, this day would forever leave its mark in her memory. She glanced up at her sister once more and took a deep breath and ran her hands down her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles of her first-day school clothes. Her family was very poor and the ‘new’ clothes she had on were handed down to her from her older sisters but that didn’t matter, they were new to her and she was thankful for them.
Mary walked into the schoolhouse as the floorboards creaked under her weight and an old musty smell welcomed her in. There in the middle of the room was a wood stove surrounded by two rows of perfectly aligned wooden desks. On each desk, was a newly sharpened yellow pencil along with a scribbler for each student to use. At the front of the classroom was a large chalkboard behind a desk that contained a few stacked books. She continued to look around unsure of herself or where to go when she saw a lady at the front of the class. At that moment, her eyes widened. Mary thought to herself, she was the most beautiful lady she had ever seen. Her skin was as fair as fair could be and her hair, golden in color, was pulled back into a neat and tidy bun. Miss Diesel looked down at her and Mary shyly said in English, hello and was rewarded with a smile. Mary beamed with pride as she took her seat.
As the students found their seats, younger children at the front and older ones towards the back, Miss Diesel began the lessons. Mary looked around confused and wondered if she was the only one who didn’t understand what was being said. Miss Diesel was speaking to them in English and the language was so foreign and confusing to her. She spoke quickly and tapped her ruler on the chalkboard at every letter but Mary had no idea what was being said and looked around again suddenly feeling very small hoping she wouldn’t be called on or noticed.
As the morning went on, Mary realized she had to relieve herself but didn’t’ know how to ask for permission and held it in. The only English word she knew was hello and struggled with how to ask in English if she could use the outhouse. When it started to get worse, she sat on her hands and swung her feet anxiously back and forth while tears of frustration threatened to reveal themselves. Mary raised her hand and asked in Cree to use the outhouse. Miss Diesel didn’t understand and quickly dismissed Mary. She looked around panicking but couldn’t hold it anymore and made a mess down her legs onto the floor beneath her desk. Mary felt the blood rush to her face and couldn’t stop the flow of tears that gave way as she ran out of the school. She was completely humiliated and so hurt and ran as fast as she could all the way home without stopping. When she got there, she threw herself on her bed and cried. Her sister arrived soon after and quietly held her until the tears stopped.
Mary did not want to ever experience the shame she felt that first day again and so she made it her priority to practice at home with her older sister every night.
“May I use the outhouse?” Those were the next set of words she learned.
To ensure the students were making an effort in learning and speaking the English language, Miss Diesel randomly invited the students to stand up in front of the class to read out loud. In her way, she ensured, shame was the key motivation to learning and therefore if a student couldn’t ask a question in English, she ignored them until they could. Miss Diesel was a lovely teacher until she wasn’t and like the other students, Mary learned the strict discipline style that was often used especially when they spoke Cree. Sometimes it was the strap, other times, the ruler or a smack with the sole of an old shoe on the back of the head. Regardless, no one was exempt from that learning experience either.
Days turned into weeks and seasons gave way to change, her humiliation of what happened on that first day of school started to subside and she shifted her focus on learning as much English as she possibly could. She was never going to feel that way again. At the end of each school day, Mary ran as quickly as she could out of that musty old one-room schoolhouse back to her home where she was free to be herself again. Free to run wild in nature surrounded by her language, culture and a family who loved her.
Looking back at her life was very painful at times and she didn’t often allow herself to go back there. She was taken away from her family from Imperial Mills at the age of 9 years old and life was never the same after that. She suffered greatly in the years since that first day of school but she walked with courage and she’s proud to have kept her language and she still speaks Cree every chance she gets. The government tried their best to wipe out her culture and language, they made it their mission to ‘kill the Indian in the child’, and they taught them to feel shame for who they are and how they lived. Mary refused to feel that shame; she is and always will be a strong and proud Metis woman.
Mary was startled out of her thoughts and turned back to her granddaughter, her heart filled with so much love as she wiped the blueberry jam from the corner of her smile. She has her whole life ahead of her, to live as she should live and to be anything she wants, the sacrifices Mary made in her life to be able to give that to her granddaughter was everything and if you asked her, she wouldn’t change a thing…
Photo by Lorna Dancey