BY MADONNA HAMEL
At wing night last week I showed Ervin the agenda for an upcoming conference put on by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. “Searching for the Path to Reconciliation – Commemoration of the November 27th 1885 Hangings at Fort Battleford.“This looks interesting”, he says. “I wouldn’t mind going myself. We could take my car.” “Excellent! We can catch up on our exciting lives- your trip to Africa and my elevator board meeting.” We left in the dark of the morning. The weather report warned of freezing rain that evening, with conditions getting nastier the further north you went. We were headed to Saskatoon. Thank God for heated car seats.
The conference was held in Wanuskewin Heritage Park on the edge of the city. Addressing us would be a host of knowledge keepers of various nations with oral histories to share about the events surrounding the hangings at Fort Battleford. Ever since I moved to Saskatchewan I’ve been immersing myself in the stories of this territory, reading local histories, reports and the latest intensely researched exposes on the crucial era between 1870s and 1890s when life changed radically for Indigenous people with the last of the buffalo herds and the beginning of the railway.
In the beginning of my reading the names of all the players came in rushes. Looming figures and exotic titles blended together, a jumble of history and events, timelines and allegiances, clashes and mysteries, sorrows and losses and attempts at understanding. Crowfoot, Big Bear, Poundmaker, Piapot, Mccleod, Walsh, Lacombe, Dumont, Riel, Sitting Bull, Legare, McDougall, Middleton, Lorne, Potts….No women. Except for Queen Victoria, the Great White Mother, who lived in the far remove. I read and read and read and found a wealth of information in the self-published memoires of settlers and farmers and ranchers, in village histories, in the transcriptions from story to page of people who were not well-known but who were there to see the changes.
Oral histories, the stories that carry the burning ember of a fire that burned centuries ago, passed for hand to hand to hand to hand – where are they and who gets to sit at that hearth? Thanks to the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, there are more and more opportunities to sit at the living hearth and hear the kept-alive stories and become part of the healing process. By being witnesses to the whole truth, we can become reconciled to the fact that we were never told the whole story. And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be privy to the stories of elders. ( Simply go to the OTC website to see where and when there’s an event in your territory. I check the calendar weekly.)
Walking into the conference building Ervin jokes about my heavy wool socks yanked up to my knees. “Interesting fashion choice. Looks like you’re getting ready to go check your traps.” “ It’s cold, what can I say?” We find seats in the back and grab a coffee and bannock with Saskatoon preserves. There is a mix of people in the audience and the room is full. Teenagers line the the wall and are invited to come sit up front.
One by one the elders and knowledge keepers and translators rise and spoke of what they had been told by grandparents and elders. The day the eight men, including one fifteen year old boy, were hanged the elders, then small children, were taken out of school and marched down to the the site of the hanging to watch their people die. They could hear the sound of them strangled, the thud of the bodies as they hit the ground when their ropes were cut just as they dropped to the dust. The eight were hung for shooting a farm instructor, an officer and a priest because they were starving and were not given promised food rations. What we didn’t hear was – women were forced to have sex with the men inside the fort in exchange for rations. Such abuse of power does not come as a surprise to me, such forced “exchanges” continue all over the world. Only, while the women and girls lose everything, most of all a life spirit, the powerful lose nothing.
These are hard stories, painful stories, says treaty commissioner Mary Culbertson, but we have to start having “courageous conversations.” The courage comes when we resist softening language to avoid hard truths. And when the listeners – inheritors of a legacy of destruction and cruelty, can sit and listen with the same kind of patience that exemplified in the elders. Throughout the afternoon speakers took their time to get a story across, pausing for long moments before articulating.
One speaker, John Spyglass, a translator from Mosquito Grizzly Bear’s Head Lean Man First Nation, his daughter having driven him through ice and snow to get him to the talk on time, took pains to explain certain words. The pronunciation of certain words can change their meanings. “In the future they will say it wrong and people will hear it wrong and translate it wrong.”
We’ve been hearing it wrong throughout history, our own story as well as everyone else’s. It was as if he was saying: “Must I spell it out to you?” Yes. And we must hear it right. We cannot change what has happened, and the accrued pile of stories, growing as high as mounds of buffalo bones lining railway tracks, can crush a psyche trying to reconcile its own culture’s capacity for erasure. Because the very act of listening is a healing act.
The stories artfully circled back on themselves all afternoon- details of the lives and the actions of the eight hanged men. I want to be careful about what I can reiterate here on the page, because it is not my story to tell. But it is my duty to listen. To witness. And to educate myself as to what it is I am witnessing. As the psychoanalyst Alice Miller wrote about child abuse in “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware”, it is not enough to be a witness, you need to understand what it is you are witnessing. Sitting in that room in Wanuskwein that afternoon, I understood, we are are witnessing a resurgence so rich and so full of heart and life, it will carry the whole world forward to a new way of being and seeing, if we let it.