This book is dedicated to members of the Siksika community, many of them now deceased, who attended Old Sun Indian Residential School. May we who survive purge ourselves of our demons and move forward together.
ARTHUR BEAR CHIEF
The Burden of Reconciliation
Letters of Apology
Arthur and I had our final “book” meeting on a bright sunny day in September 2012. There we sat at his kitchen table, just as we had so many times before, going over certain sections of the manuscript that seemed to me to need a little more detail. After about an hour, we looked at each other and, with big smiles, together proclaimed, “It’s finished!” As I drove away from Arthur’s home on the Siksika reserve, I thought about our meeting and about the power of his memory—his ability not only to recall but to relive specific moments in his life and to analyze the emotions he experienced. I felt honoured, once again, to have him as a friend.
My drive back to Calgary from Siksika seemed very short. Along the way, I reflected on my nearly three-year journey of collaboration with Arthur and contemplated my one remaining task—a task that seemed unnecessary to me but that Arthur and his wife, Marie, declared essential. They expected me to write the story of the process “from the very beginning,” as they said. They wanted me to present an honest account of my collaboration with Arthur.
The process began with a phone call from my good friend Marie Bear Chief on a cold grey winter morning early in 2010. Marie was a long-time “tipi holder” at the Calgary Stampede’s Indian Village where I was one of many white volunteers, and Marie and I had worked together on projects relating to cultural interpretation. That morning, however, Marie did not want to talk about the Indian Village. Instead, she turned to the topic of the Siksika Nation’s residential school survivors and the abuse that Arthur had experienced as a student at the Old Sun Indian Residential School. I knew from previous conversations with Marie that Arthur had received a settlement for the abuses he had suffered at the school, but this was the first time that she spoke of sexual abuse. Yes, Arthur had been sexually abused, and he wanted to make his experience public by writing a book about his life. As Marie explained, Arthur had asked her whether she knew anybody who might be able to provide a little help, and she had picked me. She said that she trusted me and that Arthur would trust me too. Now that was quite a compliment, but I wondered whether I could truly be of assistance. Would Arthur really be able to trust a woman with such a personal story?
But, since Marie seemed convinced that he would, I tucked my concerns away and focused my thoughts on Arthur, the writer. I did not question his abilities at all. I had first heard of Arthur many years earlier from Leo Youngman, the former chief of the Siksika Nation. In the late 1980s, Leo spearheaded the development of Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, and, as a heritage planner for the Province of Alberta, I had the honour of working with him for many years. In 1989, with the help of funding from the province, Leo hired his son-in-law, whom he described as a man worthy only of the highest respect and an individual with considerable experience in the civil service, for a six-month term as project administrator. Leo insisted that I meet Arthur, so at the start of his term position, he and I shook hands, and, at the end, we spoke once on the phone. Arthur and I did not recognize each other when Marie introduced us at the Indian Village well over a decade later, and I said nothing to Marie about my earlier encounter with him. But at least then I knew which of Leo’s daughters had married the man Leo had called “important.”
Marie went on to ask whether I knew anything about how to secure a publisher in order to make Arthur’s book available to the Siksika community and the general public. The only person who came to mind—someone who knew publishing and could, I felt, be trusted with Arthur’s story—was Frits Pannekoek, an historian with a background in Indigenous cultural heritage. When we spoke, he volunteered to help. Suffice it to say that before noon on that gloomy winter day, I was able to call Arthur and let him know that he had both a helper and the support of someone who was enthusiastic about the book and could advise him about finding a publisher.
Arthur talked about his writing process and why he had asked for assistance: simply put, this was the first time he had attempted writing a book, and he was not sure whether what he’d written was “publisher-ready.” We agreed to meet at his house, so that he, Marie, and I could discuss the project and Arthur could give me copies of what he had written. During our next phone conversation, Arthur summarized his residential school experiences, including some graphic descriptions of abuse. My worries about whether he would trust me vanished. Arthur Bear Chief is a powerful storyteller, and his words, even at this early stage, affected me deeply. The “very beginning” of the project was complete.
Shortly thereafter, I sat down with Arthur and Marie to learn more about the book and why Arthur wanted to write it. I left with copies of Arthur’s writings and my promise to do a little rearranging and minor editing before sending the material to Frits. Those initial writings revealed Arthur’s very compelling style of storytelling, one that evoked in me a wide range of emotional responses, as well as a genuine interest in his life’s story.
At the end of April, after Frits had reviewed Arthur’s first draft, the four of us gathered around the Bear Chief kitchen table to discuss the book and an outline that Frits had drawn up. Frits appreciated the author’s storytelling skills and writing abilities, and he asked me to send Arthur’s future writings directly to him. We met again in late August to finalize the book’s structure, and Arthur agreed to fill in a few blank spaces in his story and to expand other passages by supplying some additional description.
In working with Arthur, I was constantly amazed by his memory—by all the details that came back to him. The vivid descriptions that he provided of his horrific experiences at Old Sun Residential School became almost palatable for me because of the anecdotes he told about the occasional bright spots in his life. For example, Arthur truly loved the bowl of chocolate pudding that students were given every Sunday. When he described the delight he took in that weekly bowl of chocolate pudding, his eyes sparkled, and I caught a glimpse of the spirit of hope and resilience that allowed him to survive those years. Some four decades later, Arthur made the courageous decision to take his story of abuse into the justice system. The emotional pain he had to endure in order to win his settlement was hard for me to imagine, but I paid close attention to his every word, and I distinctly remember that, as he came to the end of the story, he said in a matter-of-fact voice, “And I had to pay GST.” The way he said it made me laugh first, but when I asked, “You’re kidding, right?” he replied with a simple “No.” These two symbols—chocolate pudding, representing hope, and the GST, signifying injustice—will remain forever etched in both my head and my heart, and in my mind’s eye, I can still see Arthur telling his story.
Arthur would call me when he had writings for Frits, and we spoke often on the telephone. Arthur has a mischievous sense of humour, and I always enjoyed the lighthearted stories he told about his past. He certainly knew how to make me laugh. Sometimes I became frustrated, though, for the simple reason that Arthur would tell me the same stories over and over and over again, from beginning to end. When he talked on the phone about new written material, the questions I had about details were set aside for a face-to-face meeting. In addition to giving me his written version, Arthur always told me important new stories more than once in person, and, at our meetings, he came to expect my questions after he finished speaking.
The first half of 2011 proved to be a very productive time. As Arthur moved his story into the period of his legal case, he talked about his counselling sessions and the lawyers he had encountered. He was definitely pleased with the progress he was making, and he welcomed Frits’s request for a meeting that spring. Frits spoke about his editorial work and the research he was conducting for the afterword he was planning to write. When he asked Arthur whether he could find any documents and photographs that could be used in the book, Arthur mentioned several documents that he felt would support his account of the legal proceedings. Arthur also wanted to request his file from his lawyers, and he declared his readiness to undertake all the steps required to retrieve it.
While Arthur was in the process of securing his file, Frits continued his editing work, and the two completed their tasks at about the same time. Because Frits wanted to deliver the second draft to Arthur in person, he asked me to arrange a meeting at Arthur’s house early in July. Arthur was pleased, but he asked me to remind Frits that, because the Calgary Stampede would be going on at the time, Marie and I would not be present. We would be at the Indian Village.
I truly looked forward to hearing Arthur’s report on his conversation with Frits after I was no longer occupied with the Stampede. As I expected, Arthur provided me with a detailed account of the meeting when I called. He said that he had enjoyed the conversation, but his voice sounded slightly subdued and perhaps a bit sad. I asked Arthur whether something was wrong. He, in turn, asked me whether I had looked at the edited draft and then said that he was not sure about it. After admitting that I hadn’t even had a chance to look at it, I asked him, with some trepidation, what he meant. When he explained his uncertainty about some of the ways his original had been changed, all it took to cheer him up was, “Ah, it is revision time. I’m sure Frits will welcome changes and comments.”
I arranged to meet with Arthur so that we could talk further about his doubts and work out a plan for revision. At our meeting, Arthur pointed to sections in the draft where his voice seemed to be almost lost, and he asked why some significant events were not included as he had intended. “Frits did not have the advantage of hearing you, Arthur, like I did,” I replied. “I know your stories inside out because I heard them so often from you, and I know where the many parts fit within the whole.” I then attempted to suggest some methods that Arthur could use to get the revision process underway. He was not receptive, but he did want to talk about the examination for discovery that he had to undergo in connection with his lawsuit. This interrogation took place on two consecutive days in October 2002, with a follow-up day in February 2003. As he spoke about the ordeal, Arthur could not hide his tears, and I sat motionless, spellbound by his words. I was beginning to understand, in my heart, the depth of his pain and how difficult it must have been for him to testify about what happened to him at Old Sun. At the end of our meeting, Arthur handed me the file box containing all his case documents, and I left with the promise to go through the entire file.
I will never find the right words to describe the effect that reading the transcript of Arthur’s examination for discovery had on me. I do know that it created within me such inner turmoil that, for days afterward, I had a difficult time accomplishing even normal daily tasks. That Arthur was able to testify about his residential school abuse with such dignity and integrity was remarkable in itself, but to come through the process with his character, strong spirit, and sense of hope intact amazed me then, and it still amazes me now.
Beginning in the autumn of 2011, however, our formerly smooth working relationship began to seem more like a wild rollercoaster ride. My efforts to persuade Arthur to use what was already on paper to start making his revisions failed miserably. I had not yet lost my patience, but I did not enjoy speaking with an angry Arthur who seemed to have expectations about my time that went far beyond my view of the role of a voluntary helper. His anger with me did disappear for a while during the winter, after Arthur spoke about his book at a gathering of Siksika residential school survivors. He was pleased that several members of the audience wanted to know when his written story would be available. I was happy that he was happy, but I also believe that this expression of interest in his book made him eager for a quick end to the revision process.
By the time spring arrived, Arthur seemed to have lost all patience, and I became the target of attack. He no longer treated me as a fellow human being. Not only did he imply that I was fully responsible for what he perceived to be a lack of progress, but he also made me feel like a simple household tool that could be used if needed and otherwise ignored or simply thrown out. During this difficult time, although I never said as much, I often thought, “What a jerk!”
Even though Arthur seemed unwilling to recognize it, we actually were making progress. While I had accepted the responsibility for entering changes in the manuscript, I refused to revise anything without his full participation. But, during our meetings, he seemed to forget that we had already agreed on what each section of the book should include and that we had developed a useful system for working through the second draft. He also appeared to have forgotten the interesting and enjoyable conversations we used to have at the end of our meetings. My resentment at being perceived as nothing more than a well-worn tool even made it hard for me to take an interest in Arthur’s fond memories about his time as a judo champion and trainer, first in Ontario and later in Saskatchewan. If nothing else, though, I was beginning to understand why Arthur sometimes chose to make extremely negative comments about himself in his narrative: he was just being honest.
I finally came to the end of my patience during a phone call from an angry Arthur making yet another demand on my time. I was just too busy for him that day, so I abruptly ended the conversation. “I will call you when I have time,” I told him. The only reason I refrained from saying, “Go to hell!” was the fact that Marie had asked me to help. I felt obligated to her, but not to her grumpy husband.
I gave myself a few weeks to get over my angry, hurt feelings before I phoned Arthur back. To my relief, he sounded like the cheerful friend whose company I enjoyed, and we promptly set up our next work session. Arthur gave me a happy greeting when I arrived, and we immediately got back to work on our review of the draft. The method we both liked was simple: Arthur read the draft aloud to me, and I listened. If either one of us had an issue, we stopped the reading and had a discussion. Together we would make a decision on the required revision, and I would then make a note of it. I remember that, during one session, I began to feel distressed and asked Arthur if we could stop. He looked at me and agreed. Why I almost began crying is a mystery to me: we were nearing the end of the manuscript, and it had not affected me in this way before. “Arthur, this must be so hard for you,” I said. He responded with, “Yes. Yes, it is.” As I look back on that meeting, I think that perhaps I had finally come to understand the real Arthur and why he so badly wanted the book to be finished.
As we moved towards the final stages of the revision process, Arthur began to tell me new stories, many of them light-hearted, but he chose not to include most of these in the book. “My life is more than just Old Sun,” he said. “But my writing is about the effects of residential school on my life. These stories do not fit.” I understood what he meant. I sometimes felt that I had become his personal repository of memories. At one point, I told him, “Arthur, I believe I know more about your life than any other human being.” He did not disagree. While at times I found it difficult to know so much, I never doubted that it was an honour to be entrusted with these memories.
Arthur’s book is worthy of a slow, thoughtful reading. My journey with him was a bumpy one, but it was well worth the trip. His courage and wisdom will always be with me, and I know he is a true friend who will always have a lesson to share if I pay attention to the stories he tells.
There are three people whom I wish to acknowledge who helped make my dream a reality. Judy Bedford, who worked diligently alongside me in putting my stories in the proper order and in editing the countless drafts of my manuscript. Frits Pannekoek, for his expertise, his research, his afterword, and his knowledge of the book business. My wife, Marie, who said to me, “Get your butt moving and quit procrastinating” and whose strong belief in me pushed me to write this book. I am forever indebted to these people.
I am sitting here tonight—three days before Christmas in 2010—alone in my basement. Nobody wants to have anything to do with me because I have been drinking. Before my wife left the house, she told me, “I don’t want to take you. All you’re going to do is drink.” So, once again, I am left by myself because I am not wanted. I have messed up so badly in my life that I cannot even be a father or a husband to anyone.
I screwed up so bad with life. Why am I still here? I can’t do anything right. I wish someone would just kill me, like they do with wounded animals. It would put me out of the misery I have lived with for so long. I just wanted to be part of everything. I cannot be perfect in everything I do, but I try to do my best.
I am crying, but I do not wish to take my own life for it is wrong to take life when it is such a great gift from God. I have been hurt so much so much in life. I feel so inadequate about myself. Why can’t someone come forward to give me a hug just the way Mother used to hug me? Simply that would make me feel wanted and loved. I did not ask to be this way. I just wanted to be normal like everybody else, and for that I get punished for life for what I went through. Nobody should have to go through what I went through.
The suicidal thoughts of that Christmas-time evening don’t happen all the time now, but that night was similar to many others when I’ve been home alone. I have real good conversations with my best buddy, Coors Light, who never condemns me or is critical of my actions. Coors Light just listens to me with no back talk. He is the only one who seems to understand how I feel, and when the scenes from residential school start going like a TV screen, he doesn’t mind that I cry like a baby. He doesn’t say a word. He lets me wonder why no one is around to hug me and kiss me on the forehead and say, “There, there, Art, everything is going to be all right. Mommy is here to protect you from harm and danger.”
But the harm and danger have already taken a toll, both physically and emotionally, and the tears keep coming like a waterfall. They seem endless, but then, like a bolt of lightning, I come back to reality, and I say to myself, “What the hell are you crying about you fucking big baby? Nobody is going to help you. Grow up and take it like a man, just like you have always done before! You are alone in this fight, so get used to it. No one is going to give you any tender loving care. Mommy is gone, so be brave and fight on for yourself.” When I am through scolding myself, I take a deep breath and have another beer to soothe the pain I have inside of me.
As I look back on my life, I find myself laughing at it, swearing at it, and feeling some fondness for some aspects of it. My life is like a cocoon that never really hatched. I was prevented from becoming a full-fledged butterfly with all its natural beauty. I remember the happiness and the joy of being young and surrounded by adults who cared for and loved me. And then I was forced to enter residential school, and I get angry and bitter about what I lost, and I feel a lot of pain. I drink to forget this pain, but with each sip, the pain seems to grow bigger inside of me. It’s almost like some kind of disease eating away at my innards, but I carry on battling my demons and recognize that I am lucky to have the family I have now and that I carry with me the spirit of my culture and traditions.
I, Arthur Bear Chief, owe my resilience to our ancestors and elders for instilling in me a spirit strong enough to survive what I went through in residential school. We survivors left the residential schools with so many scars that we would carry for the rest of our lives. Eventually these scars would lead many of us to an early death. A few of us managed to prosper in careers, to live a comfortable life and raise a family, but this wasn’t because of anything we were taught in residential school. It was a testament to our Indian spirit and our determination to overcome obstacles even in the most difficult situations. I praise my ancestors and grandparents for giving me both. The schools may have beaten us physically and emotionally, but we came out with the same spirit that our ancestors instilled in us so many years past. I once heard an old saying, which is still true: “You may beat us, break our bones. Then you can have my dead body, but not my obedience.”
When I look back to my first year at Old Sun Indian Residential School, I remember standing outside the washroom located in our playroom. Reverend Cole, along with the farm boss, Mr. Fraser, with the strap in his hand, waited for the big boys to come out of the washroom. Fraser would lay at least four or five straps on each boy’s hand, but they showed no pain on their faces. They simply walked away with a smirk, as if this was an everyday thing they had endured in the past. Looking back now, I can almost see the spirit of our ancestors sparkling in their eyes. Today, their reaction makes me proud of my Indian heritage and the resilience that comes with it. These older boys taught me something early on in residential school, and that is to hang onto my courage and spirit no matter what obstacles are put in front of me.
I almost lost the Indian spirit in me when I left the reserve in the sixties. I thank my ancestors for not turning their backs on me. I can almost see it like it was yesterday at a powwow, when an elder stands up with a blanket wrapped around his waist, dances in one spot, raises an eagle feather in one hand and hoots. What a powerful spirit!
Sometimes I wonder if my child’s spirit is still waiting for me to take it back home to settle into the life that was so comfortable and good before we were taken away from home so long ago. I still cry in silence when I think of all those years in that place, so alone and scared, wondering what’s going to happen next—yearning for my mother’s touch and hug like it used to be. That will only ever come back in my dreams. How sad for me to be denied the right to have a normal childhood upbringing.
I am writing this book in hopes that it will help me in my journey of healing and recovery from my abuse at Old Sun Residential School. Everything else I have attempted eventually led me back to myself without any resolution to rid me of my demons. My emotions still overtake me at times, and I sit and cry for myself and many others who are not here—gone, but not forgotten by me. May your spirits guide me in the writing of my book. If your spirit is restless, I hope this book will give you some sense of peace. If that is the case, I too will be at peace with you.
When I go back to the days before residential school, I think very fondly of the memories of my mother. She used to touch my face and give me a little hug, just a little reassurance of her love.