To Walk a Mile in our Moccasins

To Walk a Mile in our Moccasins

A Course Outline on Canada’s Indian Residential School Experience



“To know and understand someone you must first walk a mile in their moccasins”
Ancient Cree Wisdom

It has been said that the most profound is often hidden in the simplest things.  Using this truism as a basis, Canadian artist, activist, author and educator Dennis Lakusta has developed a unique approach to better understanding Canada’s Indian Residential School tragedy and this country’s oftentimes abusive treatment of its Aboriginal citizens. Over the past twenty years Dennis has criss-crossed the width and breadth of this vast country speaking to tens of thousands of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students – from elementary through to university post graduate levels – on such subjects as the Indian Act, the reservation system,  Aboriginal youth suicide, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, The Constitution Act of 1982, Aboriginal self-government and self-determination as well as the history of the Indian schools themselves and their affect on his family. Now in his mid-seventies, Dennis felt it was the right time to condense and refine his many experiences as a traveler and educator into one simple but hard-hitting document on these current and hot-button issues.

After guest lecturing at Simon Fraser University for the past nine years Dennis originally intended this course/program to be an extension and expansion of talks given at SFU but considering the immediacy of these issues and the electrically-charged atmosphere surrounding Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations (both in Canada and around the globe) the document’s scope has been widened to include conferences, symposiums, forums and essentially any gatherings focused on indigenous healing and reconciliation. The course consists of ten independent parts or sessions which can be presented (1) singularly, (2) grouped with other sessions or (3)delivered in its entirety. Flexibility is key and each session can be customized to fit a one to two hour format depending on the student’s engagement in the material. The success of the program is largely dependent on engagement…. these are not lectures per se. After Dennis’ initial delivery of the main theme of each session, students are heartily encouraged to engage and participate in an open discussion of the issues presented.

These sessions are not dull…Dennis is known far and wide for his patented brand of earthy humour, his exquisite and topical songwriting and his amazing artwork, all of which are incorporated into this unique and exciting program.

Aesop was a master at using fables – the tortoise and the hare, the fox and the grapes for example – as simple teaching models to explain profound and universal truths/principles usually relating to the complexities and nuances inherent within the human condition. Other visionaries throughout history have used similar devices (parables, songs, theatre, mythology, allegories, legends, etc.) to express their own ideas and insights. Following in the footsteps of this illustrious lineage, Dennis Lakusta will also use the simplest of models – drawn mainly from the realm of literature, the arts and personal experience – to deliver a heart-felt and sometimes brutally-honest portrayal of the Indian Residential School experience. The following ten-part course provides Canadians from all walks of life (not just students) with the opportunity to better understand the Residential School tragedy from an Aboriginal perspective….by ‘walking a mile in our moccasins’.

Session #1…The Pied Piper of Hamlin: As Allegory

In the folk tale ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ the town was overrun by rats. The mayor, on behalf of the townsfolk, offered a reward to anyone who could get rid of them… a piper accepted the challenge and proceeded to saunter through the town while playing a tune on his pipe. The rats, being somehow entranced by the music, scurried out of their holes and followed the piper. He then led the rats out of town, never to be seen again. When the piper returned to collect his reward the mayor and townsfolk reneged on their agreement… the angry piper once again sauntered through the town playing the same tune on his pipe only this time it was the children who followed him out of town, never to be seen again. The pied piper had inflicted upon the townsfolk the ultimate punishment by taking away from them what they held most dear and precious… their children.

The forced removal of 160,000 Aboriginal children from their families, communities, language, spirituality and traditional ways literally ‘tore the heart’ out of the native culture. Most of the trauma and dysfunction that exists in Canada’s native communities today can be traced back to this one senseless act of cultural barbarism committed by the church and state.

                  (Excerpt from the essay titled, “Healing A Broken People”)

The tie-in between the above folk tale and Canada’s Indian Residential School system is unmistakable. The tale was written over four hundred years ago by the Brothers Grimm and even today has not lost its relevance or meaning. The central meaning being the value and importance of children to a family, village, community or culture.

To Kill the Indian in the Child

During this first session the students are asked (figuratively) to remove their shoes so they can walk for a ways in someone else’s shoes, or in this case, in someone else’s moccasins. They will then be taken on a difficult journey deep, deep within themselves to a place that many will not be familiar with and where hopefully the students, their future children and their grandchildren will never have to go. It is that hidden place deep within the pit of our stomach where people really, really ‘hurt’. Not the hurt that one feels when we stub our toe or bump our head but the deep hurt children feel when their humanity and ‘personhood’ has been violated by a coercive force outside themselves which is both impossible to understand and impossible to control. It is the hurt children feel when they have been sexually, physically or psychologically abused by a system that is intent on destroying the very fabric of their culture.

Dennis will be the guide on this journey because he has been to this hurtful place many times in his life…he knows the layout of the land and he also knows how to get back. Periodically the students attending this session will be asked to express their feelings about what they have heard thus far.

The next part of the journey switches tracks a bit and transports the students into a scenario in which a typical Aboriginal family is enjoying an evening meal in their home. (The students are encouraged to use their imagination by placing themselves directly into this scenario and imagining – even for a few moments – that these unfolding events are actually happening to them). A loud knock on the door interrupts the peace of the family gathering and in walks two white men in police uniforms who present a document signed by the federal government authorizing them to seize – by force if necessary – all the children between the ages of five and seventeen and place them in a vehicle waiting outside. The frightened children will then be driven to the nearest train station, tagged and transported, sometimes hundreds and even thousands of miles away, to a prison-like institution which the government calls an Indian Residential School. At this point in the session the students are invited to express their feelings about what the children – and the family – are going through as these events unfold…how would the students themselves feel if this happened to their families…how would their parents and grandparents feel if this actually happened to them.

In the next and final part of Session #1 Dennis will provide for the students a gut-wrenching account of day-to-day life for many of the 160,000 aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in the Residential schools. For example, what was the first day or two like after their arrival…the children were forced to disrobe, their clothes were burned, their hair was cut short and they were issued institutional uniforms. Or what were some of the many strict rules that were enforced by the priests and nuns who ran the institutions. Rules like never allowing the native children to ever again speak their own language or practice their own spirituality or sing their own songs…the children were subsequently forced to learn a new and foreign language, practice a new and foreign religion and eat new and foreign foods. If the children broke any of these rules they were punished, sometimes severely…corporal punishment was an excepted method of punishment administered by the priest and nuns.

Many children became sick and many died from allergies as a result of eating the white man’s food. Many died from the over-crowding poor nutrition and lack of heat in the winter months. Many died after running away from the institutions. Many died from suicide. Even after leaving the Residential schools many former students died as adults from the psychological and emotional trauma suffered while attending the indian schools as children. The estimated death-toll from the 90-year history of the schools ranges from thousands to tens of thousands…low estimates only account for children dying while actually registered and living in the schools. The higher estimates include the run-aways, the unmarked grave sites being uncovered today and the many former students who died from suicide and alcohol/drug-related deaths after leaving the schools.

Session #1 concludes with an open forum on the above accounts and Dennis encourages an unrestricted, ‘no-holds-barred’ discussion about, not only the history of the schools themselves, but the racist attitudes and mentality that created and administered the institutions. Students attending these sessions will no doubt find Dennis’ approach to these issues to be confronting, blunt and sometimes even brutal. This is by design. Dennis feels that students and other Canadians need to be ‘shocked’ into an awareness of what actually happened in Canada’s Indian Residential schools. This humanitarian tragedy was clearly the darkest chapter in Canadian history…sometimes referred to as ‘Canada’s dirty little secret’. Genocide – both active and passive – was committed right here, upon our soil and in our recent times. A crime against humanity was perpetrated and the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church have tried their level best to cover up the crime…to sweep the Indian Residential school tragedy under the carpet and to white-wash the Indian schools and the aboriginal culture out of our history books. If we as a country are ever going to address the racist foundation that Canada was built upon (and that still very much exists today), if we as a country are ever going to heal the wounds inflicted upon our First Nations, Inuit and Metis citizens, if we as a country are ever going to accept, embrace and ‘own’ the mis-deeds and injustices of our past then it is Dennis’ deeply held conviction that a confronting and brutally honest accounting is what’s needed and that this accounting should begin in the Canadian education system.

Session #2. The Sandy Bay/Stanley Mission Dichotomy

  1. An effective and cohesive outline for SFU guest lecture series.
  2. The Pied Piper and the Indian Residential School
  3. The Sandy Bay/Stanley Mission Dichotomy (Youth Suicide)
  4. The Awakening of a Warrior (A Personal History)
  5. To Be in the Whiteman’s World…But Not of It
  6. The Cat and the Eagle’s Feather (on Resilience)
  7. Personhood and a New Understanding of Genocide
  8. Cellular Memory and the Voices of Our Ancestors
  9. Allegory of the Christmas Tree (Explaining Native Spirituality)
  10. The Genetics of Culture
  11. The Elder and the Children (Face to Face With Survivors)