Growing through the test of time: A residential school survivor reflects on his life
by Keoputhy Bunny, News Editor and Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Publishing Editor
“They didn’t look at us as kids, they looked at us as inmates.”
Clarence Wolfleg, or better known as Elder Miiksika’am, said as he sipped his tea inside the old diner. “They’d punish you for everything.” A model train on the ceiling noisily chugged its way through its track as 70’s music flowed softly through the speakers, making the rustic Blackfoot Truckstop Diner seem like a restaurant inside a time capsule.
With discoveries upon discoveries of Indigenous children being unearthed on the grounds of residential schools, stories from survivors like Miiksika’am needs to be heard more than ever; shedding light on the horrific experiences innocent children have gone through in the hands of cruel priests, nuns, and school supervisors.
Miiksika’am, a now well-respected Indigenous Elder and spiritual advisor from Mount Royal University, knew almost nothing about residential schools at six years old. His parents and siblings, although they went to residential schools before him, don’t talk about it in detail.
“They always called it ‘that place’. That’s how I learned it. They didn’t say ‘You’re going to school’”, Miiksika’am said.
They never referred to it once as a school.
“And when you go to that place, you can’t come back to us and your big brothers to help you. You got to find your own way; fight to survive. You can’t speak our language. You have to learn to speak English.”, Miiksika’am added.
This was his parents’ warning. They talked about how their experience was tough and horrible, especially because of some cruel nuns and supervisors. And that’s all he knew as he embarked on that journey.
A prison for children
It was also at six years old when Miiksika’am started to attend the Old Sun Indian Residential School in Alberta. He says the school, in some ways, felt like being put in jail.
“You have to line up for everything. Everything is timed. Just a few hours to go out and play but most of the time, you work.” Miiksika’am also said they were given numbers. His was 61.
Aside from having everything they do being controlled, the students were tormented by their teachers and supervisors. Miiksika’am recalls a supervisor named ‘Mr. Jones’, who set loose his Black Labrador to terrorize kids.
“…We see him coming and we start looking for a place to climb up because he’s going to release him on us… but some of us get caught in the open and we just crunch together, try to find something to hit him with…”
Miiksika’am also recalls one night when the same supervisor brandished a revolver in front of the children and threatened to shoot them. He had appeared to be heavily intoxicated. And he is only one of many.
Another supervisor slammed a student’s face into a concrete wall after the student talked back. The shop teacher struck a student with a two-by-four after the student did something wrong.
While Miiksika’am had good moments with other students, too often it felt too good to last.
“If it’s too quiet, it gets too nice, we were afraid the next day’s going to be a terrorizing day.”
Even their recreational activities weren’t safe. When the kids played soccer, one of the priests liked to kick the ball right into the kids’ faces, giving them nosebleeds.
Even with food, the kids were subjected to torment. Even though the kids were told to work in gardens, milk cows and take care of chickens, their meals never involved any of that.
While what the supervisors and priests ate were very elaborate, the kids were forced to eat basic macaroni and porridge. And on the occasion that they’re being punished, burnt porridge. If they did not finish their food, they were met with physical punishments.
A sliver of youth
With all that torment, Miiksika’am takes every opportunity to grasp on the childhood slowly being stripped from him every day. When he would meet other survivors of the residential schools, they would talk about the better experiences they had together. It’s uncommon for the topic of hardship to ever come up.
Miiksika’am found himself lucky to meet a priest who encouraged the children to participate in sports. He was one of those children. Through the guidance of that priest, their team was able to set nine provincial school records in track and field.
One Christmas eve, Miiksika’am remembered a dark room radiated by beams of light from the hands of smiling boys. It was that Christmas when the nuns gave them flashlights as gifts. In another year, they received toy cars; something Miiksika’am treasured. He brought it home to play with his siblings – a rare moment in his childhood.
Sometimes, the school would even let the children watch films. When Miiksika’am and his friends saw Tarzan, they acted out the characters of the film the next day. They’d pretend like they were one of the gorillas or chimpanzees and climb the trees competing with each other. Miiksika’am chuckled when he remembered telling one of his friends, “You can be Tarzan but I don’t want to be Jane.”
Timeless trees and a timeless friendship
But if there’s one positive experience that Miiksika’am will never forget, it’s the one between four children and some young trees.
During his time in the residential school, Miiksika’am would always be seen beside his three closest friends. They were known for chasing down whoever bullied one of them. Having a conflict with one of them means having a conflict with all of them.
“Four of us formed a pact that we would look out for each other.” Miiksika’am said.
But their friendship is not just all brute and no love.
Miiksika’am still vividly remembers the bushes of young trees behind the building. The four would always bring cups of water for the plants and talk to them. This is how they were taught to care for them, making conversation as if they too were people.
But Miiksika’am and his friends shared more than just small talk with these young trees. They were the best listeners they could ever have. All their struggles and feelings of loneliness were poured out into these trees.
“That’s how we unload our tears. We would hold each other and cry and cry and cry.”
By being together, just between each other’s arms and finally letting go of the tears they hold back almost every day in the hands of the cruel nuns and supervisors, they gained the courage to continue.
As they held each other, Miiksika’am would still acknowledge the trees, telling them, “Don’t worry little trees. Don’t worry about our crying. You’re gonna grow.”
He recalled coming back to the trees after all those years. It was during a tour of the school with students from the University of Calgary. At that point of time, all his three friends had passed away.
Before the tour started, he excused himself. He went to the trees. All have become tall and sturdy. They have clearly stood the test of time, like the man sitting in front of them.
“I sat down and oh boy… the tears started to flow.”
Miiksika’am felt the presence of his friends sitting beside him, admiring the trees they cared for after all those years ago.
“Look at these trees, it’s so beautiful. Just like me, I’m a beautiful person. I grew. I know who I am.” Miiksika’am said.
He stood up and proceeded to hug one of the trees, and he told it, with tears still in his eyes, “Don’t worry I’m still going to check on you. Nobody’s going to cut you down.”
The next step
Upon finishing public high school, Miiksika’am joined the military just like his father. He served in Canadian Regular Forces with the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. After his military service, Miiksika’am continued to serve his community by being a police officer for the Blackfoot Tribal Police, eventually becoming chief of police. And in those times, he saw how much in need is his community. There is still so much to be done.
Reconciliation is a work-in-progress. But seeing the state of his community, Miiksika’am can’t help but wonder: “We spend so much money on foreign affairs, where is our interpreter?”
Canada may be a humanitarian country but there are still voices in our own country that are still not being heard. Miiksika’am suggests to bridge the gap between peoples and languages, an app to translate languages may go a long way.
In the residential school, Miiksika’am remembers having to make gestures with his hands because he didn’t know enough English to say that his friend wanted to go to the washroom. Being able to speak and communicate in your language is important in Canada, especially because residential schools were designed to wipe out Indigenous languages and cultures.
Having an app to translate from less common languages may also open new lines of cross-generational communication as well. On the topic of speaking to his younger siblings about his residential school experience, Miiksika’am remarked that conversations with the younger generations need to happen but a conversation with strangers is very different from one with his family: “It’s a very emotional thing for us…”.
Now with well over a thousand bodies being uncovered in various residential schools across the country, one question stands out in everyone’s mind: ‘How should the country respond?’
“We want you to put those words into actions.” Miiksika’am says. He continues later on by saying: “If you’re going to make it right, come as people, not as your titles.”
When asked about Orange Shirt Day, he replied: “No, it’s what you wear within you. That’s what you got to start with.”
He believes healing has to happen and Canada still has soul-searching to do but it may take years and years before anything is truly finalized.
Rather than being sad, Miiksika’am says he wants people to listen and learn. Sadness alone cannot create any action. What’s important is understanding the life and the stories of those in need and what you do with that understanding.