MY STRUGGLE WITH ALIENATION
Around the end of February, 1996, I received a call from Bloodvein, a
place I still call home. The person I spoke to asked if I was free on
Tuesday, March 26, 1996. He said, if you are, we are having an Aboriginal
Youth Conference, and we would like you to come and talk about your personal
educational experiences. I responded by saying that I was free and I would
be happy to do whatever I could to encourage the youth to keep going to
After I hung up the phone I thought I wonder if I can do this. I didn't
give it much thought until the day before I was supposed to go. This was
not the first time, I have been asked to talk about these experiences,
but somehow I knew it was time to tell the truth. The time had arrived
to tell the students and my people, what it has been like for me since
I left home.
Acknowledging these feelings made me feel quite nervous. What will I
say? How much can I tell them? The previous times I presented, I never
had the courage to talk about how homesick and lonely I was for my parents,
my brothers and sisters and my friends. I was never able to tell the the
audience that when I had left home I cried every day for the first three
months. I decided a few years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds ago,
achieving the level of education I have, has been much, much too expensive
and I really could not afford to have it pent up inside of me anymore.
I had come to a realization that I needed to share these experiences.
Not just share them, but I had to do it in a meaningful way so that my
stories may benefit those who are now beginning their journey. If I can
help in one small way to alleviate some of the pain and discomfort the
students are now experiencing, then I think it's time for me to take some
responsibility and begin acting like a role model I claim to be.
The night before I was scheduled to travel to Bloodvein I told my partner
that I didn't want to go. He said "Remember what you always say;
you say you do it for the students". I also knew if I didn't go,
I would not feel very good about it. They were expecting me.
When we landed I thought about my late father; I even looked for him,
because when he was alive, he would always pick me up at the airport.
I knew he was there in spirit and the thought comforted me. My mother
was not there, because she suffered a stroke in December, 1995 and is
still in the hospital, awaiting a bed in a personal care home. My parents
not being there reminded me that things have changed; I have changed.
The Aboriginal Youth Conference began with an opening prayer by one of
the elders. Ten students, ranging from 10 to 16 years of age and seven
adults, including my oldest sister and one of my younger sisters, were
in attendance. Immediately before my session, an elder, my Uncle Antoine
spoke in Saulteaux about his personal experiences; he talked about the
first time the white man came to the reserve. He said, "yes, the
white man brought books, but if we did not resist, we would not have a
place we could call home. I did not speak English, I had to depend on
other people on the reserve to help me understand what was happening.
Education is important. We need to understand the ways of the white man
but they need to understand ours. Keep going to school" Then he said
something I will never forget...he pointed at his feet and said...DON'T
JUST LOOK WHERE YOU'RE GOING; LOOK WAY AHEAD; LOOK INTO THE FUTURE.
What my uncle had to say was momentous for me. I hadn't worked for an
education for the community; I'd done it for myself. I realized at that
moment I was meant to be there. I, too, need to be reminded by my elders,
to look beyond where I am now. His words made me understand the importance
of protecting the culture. Hearing him speak in Saulteaux, I remember
leaving home at fourteen for an education. I remembered the experiences
that helped shape who I am today--the times at the residential school,
at Kelvin High, at the University of Winnipeg, and now at the University
For almost thirty years I have been engaged in study of one sort or
another, "looking where I'm going" but not seeing far ahead.
Listening to my uncle I found myself remembering my educational experiences--many
painful. I found myself feeling a sense of responsibility to share what
had happened to me--to encourage those young people as best I could to
pursue an education, but also, to let them know how difficult that can
I had decided to bring some of the writing I had done in a course I
am presently taking. I thought if I couldn't tell my stories, perhaps
I would be able to read some of them. I placed my binder on the floor
and I said, "These papers you see are all about what happened to
me when I first left to go to school. I won't read you all of them, but
let me share one or two."
I spent years trying to get into a Masters program. I have worked at
the University of Winnipeg for eleven years as a Native Student Advisor.
Not having a graduate degree in my position disturbed me. I felt many
times that I had no credibility. I had done extremely poor in my undergraduate
degree and I regretted not taking my education as seriously as I should
have. I began taking courses in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba
in 1986, mainly to convince myself I could do better. I had no intention
of doing the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Education. It was not until
I enrolled in education courses that I met professors who were extremely
helpful and suggested I could transfer the credits I had into the P.B.C.E.
program. I completed it in October 1993. In January 1994, I was finally
accepted into the Masters program in Education at the University of Manitoba.
I enrolled in an Action research course taught by Judith Newman in September,
1995. First, I knew it was different from other research methods I had
read about and second, it seemed to me the course was something I had
been looking for--a vehicle I could use to do my thesis. When I was contemplating
taking the course, I decided to go and talk to Dr. Newman about it. After
she explained the course and her expectations, I seriously considered
not taking the course because I could not see myself "doing research
on myself", or perhaps I was afraid of what I would find out about
myself, both as a person and an educator? I knew the course was going
to be difficult. I did not know where it would take me, or how I was going
to use it for my thesis.
One requirement of the course was a piece of reflective writing every
week. Every week I would faithfully write my reflections about what I
had read or what had happened at work and looked for something magical
to emerge--something which might tell me why I am. I would ask Judith
for direction and she would ask, " What do you think the issues are?
What are the tensions?" I kept writing about my work and responding
to what I was reading, keeping the real stories at arm's length. And Judith
kept prodding me to look inward, to "tell stories." Finally,
one day I let a story come...
I turned 14 in the summer of 1966 and just graduated from grade eight
and plans had been made earlier that I would go to a residential school
for my grade nine. I was part of these plans because I desperately wanted
to finish high school and if I did I would be the first one from my community.
Over the years, I had watched students leave on the plane and I told myself...one
day I will be the one going on the plane, but I will not return until
I remember the day I left like it was yesterday. The excitement was
overwhelming and I was out to prove something to someone, but I don't
think it was me. Did I think I would be better than the others who had
quit and come back? Or was I serious about learning something different...something
that might help me and my people? Today, in my work as an advisor and
counsellor, there is not a day that goes by when a student comes in and
says I am interested in going to university. I usually ask what would
you like to study and the answer is always "I want to work with my
people, so I want something I can use". In his article, "Redefinition
of Indian Education", Hampton states "the second standard of
Indian education is service. Education is to serve the people. Its purpose
is not individual advancement or status" (1995, p. 21). This statement
is not only recognized by most Aboriginal people who are working in the
education system, but also the students I work with. We all know there
is an expectation from our communities to offer and give back what we
have learned. What is not always talked about is how "being educated"
sometimes sets us apart from the rest of the community, not just our communities,
but we are seen by the dominant culture as being different, "a success
In June 1971, I was finally in Grade 12, for the second time. I was in
the wrong program at Churchill High School and in order for me to go to
university, I needed to go back and pick up university entrance subjects.
I completed these courses at Kelvin High School. I was excited, but I
was also depressed. There were times I was excited about graduating, but
that also meant I was going to be set apart from the other Aboriginal
students, including my older brothers and sisters. Now where was I going
to belong? What's so important about finishing high school anyway? Edelsky
and Harman (1989) suggest that "the child or adult who has put one
foot into the new exciting new world where language is power may feel
a strong tug on her other foot from those left behind. Family and friends
may express resentment, jealousy, abandonment, or simply, incomprehension
at their loved one's movement away from them" (p. 400).
When I reflect about this time, I think about what Hampton said about
education and how it is not based on "individual advancement or status",
but it is to serve the people. In many ways I did neglect and deny who
I was and where I came from because it was easier for me. That way I didn't
have to answer questions about my family and there were times I thought
admitting being "Indian" would hurt my chances to succeed. Those
times were very confusing. Kohl (1994) talks about purposely not learning
Yiddish and it's not until he goes to Harvard that he realizes he had
made a mistake. He states "I wanted to be myself, neither minority
or majority, and rejected both the pressure to assimilate and to separate.
It was very hard to walk that thin line alone, yet there was no one to
talk to about my desire to learn everything Harvard had to offer without
giving up myself" (p. 24). I didn't give up my language, but I rejected
my culture. I hated sitting in the classroom when my teachers presented
anything that had to do with Aboriginal people because it was always so
negative. It was as if they were talking about me. Perhaps this poem will
clarify the agony and the ugly space I was in. It describes what I went
through in high school.
"The Only Good Indian
Is a Dead Indian"
I never heard that on
I was fine before I
Came to the city
What is wrong with me
I have no answer
All I know is that
I am afraid of making
I am afraid if I succeed
It will not make any
There was a time
Laughing at myself
Now all I feel is
I am afraid to open
I know I am not dead
Does that mean
I am no good?
I must be no good
Because I feel ugly
I hate being Indian
Why was I born on the
There is nothing I can do
To change that
I can't change who I am
I'm afraid I am
Not prepared to die
So I have to try
"To be a Good Indian".
When I finished the poem, it reminded me of the times I had convinced
myself I could never write a poem. Perhaps, it is not a poem that would
be considered a masterpiece in an English class, but it is a poem which
describes where I have been. It is a reminder; what I wanted to do and
accomplish in the first place.
According to Connelly and Clandinin (1990) "The study of narrative,
therefore, is the study of the ways humans experience the world. This
general notion translates into the view that education is the construction
and reconstruction of personal and social stories; teachers and learners
are storytellers and characters in their own and other's stories"
(p. 2). The very first time I stepped into a classroom, my dream was always
to master the English language. Here I am in my mid-forties and I am still
trying to learn the language. I can get by and I can sometimes describe
how I feel with the language, but when it comes to articulating exactly
how I feel, it fails me. It fails me because it is a language, which does
not connect with my heart, my family, my history, my dreams, but it is
a language I can manipulate when it suits me. What this means is; I give
up part of what I want to say, therefore, I give up part of me. How honest
can that be?
It makes me realize what I have given up to get an education. An expense,
I did not visualize, nor did I imagine. Grant (1994) contends that "who
we are is written on our bodies, our hearts, our souls. That is what it
means to be Native in the dawn of the twentieth century" (p. 74).
The place in the paper or assignment has arrived where I find myself just
wanting to cry. Cry for what? Cry, because I feel sorry for myself, or
cry because I have denied for so long who I am? Am I just realizing now,
how I have bought into the system? A system, so foreign, but I keep trying
to live it. Is this also the part I admit why I did not want to take this
course? Connelly and Clandinin (1990) suggest further that "for the
researcher, this is a portion of the complexity of narrative, because
a life is also a matter of growth toward an imagined future and therefore,
involves retelling stories and attempts to reliving stories. A person
is, at once, engaged in living, telling, retelling and reliving stories
(p. 4). "Action research is as much about uncovering our assumptions
as it is about seeing new connections" (Newman, 1995, p. 6).
What then did I assume was going to happen if I got an education? What
was I fighting for and what am I continuing to fight for? Where did I
think I was going to end up? Have I done what I wanted to do? Grant (1994)
states, "Memories are stories--pictures of the mind, gathered up
and words put to them, making them live and breathe" (p. 109). I
cannot do "research on myself", unless I am willing to tell
some of my stories and hopefully, the stories I choose to tell, will help
me figure out why I am the way I am and why I do the things the way I
do, both personally and professionally. These stories are not just stories.
As Grant suggests, they come alive and I have to relive them so that I
can find meaning and admit to myself, that each story I have to tell has
had some impact on how I work and how I view the world. These stories
are like a mirror of my past, but they are also a reflection of the problems
I thought I had dealt with and wonder why they keep reappearing?
The Indian agent (counsellor), my mother and I met two or three times
before I actually left home. My mother was adamant about me going to Pine
Creek Residential School. I remember very clearly the Indian agent promising
my mother I would go there and I also remember the relief in my mother's
eyes. It was clear to everyone where I would go to school.
I had to stay overnight in Winnipeg before I could get on the bus to
Camperville. That night was very strange. I stayed at the Assiniboine
Residence, where my oldest sister and brother had gone. When I arrived,
a nun met me at the front door and I found out later her name was Sister
Charette. I followed her down the hall, up the stairs, past the washroom
and finally ending up in the dormitory. It was huge; it seemed like endless
rows of beds, all painted white, made up with either pink or brown blankets
at the foot of each bed. Sister said, there are not very many students
here yet, so you can have this bed right by the door. I asked her if anybody
else was coming and she said, no. I could feel my heart pounding. I had
always shared a room with my sisters and here I was with all these empty
beds. Sister Charette asked me if I remembered where the washroom was
and I told her I did. At that she said, have a good sleep then. I heard
her walk down the hall, down the stairs...I was completely alone; I was
scared. I had never been alone before; I sat on the bed and I wondered
what my sisters were doing. I wished they were here with me. I thought
about my parents and all I wanted was to go home. My heart felt so heavy
and I was very tired. I tossed and turned and tried to find a comfortable
position, but I couldn't. The noise of the traffic was unbearable; how
can anybody sleep? I continued to lay there and stared at the ceiling
and all of a sudden I felt tears running down both sides of my face. I
felt so lonely; a feeling I had never experienced. What have I done? Why
did I want to come to school so badly? Maybe when I get to Camperville,
it will be better....
When the bus arrived, the bus driver announced we were in Sandy Bay.
I panicked. This is not where I'm supposed to be. All I could think of
was; my mother is not going to know where I am. She is never going to
find me. How come Mr. Peters lied to her? Why did Father Emile put me
on the wrong bus? I had no way of calling my mother to tell her where
I was. What am I going to do? There were other students with me and when
we got to the Sandy Bay residential school, the two nuns who were there
took us to the kitchen for something to eat. I remember sitting in the
huge kitchen and there were rows and rows of tables and benches. I didn't
feel like eating and it made me feel worse that the nuns didn't seem to
notice they got an extra student. My mother would have noticed. I thought
about the times, we went somewhere as a family. She would count all of
us, sometimes two or three times, until she was satisfied she didn't forget
any of us.
After we ate I remember going up to the dorm; it looked exactly the
same as the one I slept in, the night before. I didn't want to be there.
I just wanted to go home. I felt abandoned and I had no idea where I was.
The more I thought about Mr. Peters and Father Emile, the more angry I
became. There were both liars--nobody lies to my mother and I was not
going to be part of it. I, too, felt cheated, lied to, and I didn't understand
any of it.
The next day, more students arrived. The following days are a blur but
I remember the second evening very well. There were about sixty girls
in the dorm, but it was so quiet; no one was talking. We quietly put our
pyjamas on, washed up and there was no noise until Sister told us to kneel
down to say our prayers. Prayer at that moment didn't seem to provide
any solace. All I could think of was how am I going to get out of here?
I was very confused. But there was one thing I knew for sure; I was miserable
and I was not going to stay here. I was going to find a way to leave.
I had no idea whether that was possible, but I was going to do everything
in my power to change my situation. Classes were going to start the next
day and I thought, why would I start school here when I'm not going to
be here for very long? I really did not know what I was going to do, but
whatever it was, I would have to decide before classes start. I knew the
nuns were not going to help me because when I told them I was at the wrong
school the very first night, they didn't seem too concerned. I would have
to do this myself. But who do I talk to? Then I REMEMBERED seeing an office
when I came in, but I didn't know how to get there.
I knew the office was on the main floor. As I walked down the hallway,
I felt more like the hunted, instead of the hunter. I was scared and I
kept looking behind me to see if anyone was following me. The hallway
seemed endless. Brave, I wasn't, but I kept walking until I finally found
the principal's office. I knocked on the door; my heart was racing. I
felt like running away, but where would I go? After all this, the principal
is probably not even here. He has to be here. I knocked again. I noticed
my arm was a bit heavier and the knock was not as loud and it lacked confidence.
Oh come on, Please be there.
Finally the door opened, the priest in his full cassock, looked puzzled
to see me at the door. He looked down the hall to see if anyone else was
with me. His facial expression clearly indicated I was disturbing him.
My brothers and sisters and I had seen enough priests to know when we
bothered them and I was bothering this one. I asked him if I could talk
to him and he said, "Come in, have a seat". "Father",
I said, "there has been a big mistake. I was supposed to go to Camperville,
not here". He said, "What is your name?" I told him and
he looked at his list and he said, "No mistake has been made. You
are to remain in this school and nothing can be done about it." But
my mother...thinks I'm in Camperville. And Mr. Peters told her that's
where I was going". He looked at me and he said, "There is nothing
I can do". I continued to sit in the chair; it was a comfortable
chair. I don't remember ever sitting in a leather chair before, but this
was not an ordinary situation either. "Go back to the playroom and
tell Sister Stephanie you will be staying". I responded by saying,
"I'm not going to stay here, Father".
There was an extra chair, one of those oak chairs with no padding, in
his office and I got up; picked it up and I said I am going to sit outside
your office until you transfer me". "You can't sit there,"
he said. "Go back to the playroom". No; I'm going to sit here.
I took the chair and I put it right outside his office. I sat there for
a week, but it seemed like forever, I would go and eat, go to bed with
the other girls, but I was not going to classes.
When I was sitting in the chair, I felt so far away from home. The long
hallway; the clean floors did not do much to comfort me. My bum was getting
sore, but I was not going to give up what I started. I tried putting both
my hands between the chair and my bum. I leaned forward and rocked, but
nothing seemed to relieve the stress or the ache. What's going to happen
to me? I stared at the floor and I began to cry. No one really came to
check to see what I was doing? I began to have some doubts about whether
my "sit in" was going to have any effect? Tomorrow is going
to be Friday, I don't want to be here for the weekend.
The next day I resumed my spot, but I was feeling quite uncomfortable
and was certainly not as confident that anything was going to come out
of my daring "resistance". But I can't give up. About one o'clock
in the afternoon, Father Chaput came out of his office and he said "Go
and get your things, you are going to Camperville this afternoon".
I couldn't believe my ears. I left the chair where it was, and as I ran
down the hall, I yelled back to Father, "Thank you!"
I did it! I am going to be transferred. About an hour later, I was sitting
in the playroom and Sister Stephanie came in and she said "Come with
me to the front, the cab is coming any minute. I picked up my suitcase
and made the trek down the hallway, which had become quite familiar. We
passed Father Chaput's office...the chair, my chair was not there. There
was not a trace of my rebellious act. I felt kind of proud. I got in the
cab and never looked back. The sun was shining; it felt good on my face.
For a fourteen year old girl, I felt pretty good for what I had just done.
I was reading Kohl's article, "I Won't Learn From You" in the
plane and his statement about exclusion grabbed my attention. He states,
"exclusion, whether based on gender, race, class, or any other category,
is a way of insulting or injuring people" (1994, p. 21). Reading
and thinking with him caused me to reflect on my educational experiences.
This is the reason why I was going home. I wondered how I could explain
to the students about the exclusion of our history and our people in schools.
I have to tell them how this affected me as a student. What stories can
I share with them so that they will understand the challenges I faced
while I was going through high school? Are there certain stories which
would be more helpful and meaningful?
As I was asking myself these questions, it dawned on me that I had been
hurt because my history, my people and I had been excluded. It was like
I didn't exist at all and, in order for me to think I belonged somewhere,
I had rejected my family and my "Aboriginal" identity. It was
a survival technique which, in retrospect, has shaped and constructed
who I have become as a person and an educator. Going home helped me admit
to myself that I went through high school feeling isolated, alienated
myself from my people and family, but most of all, I alienated myself
from myself. Is this what Edelsky and Harman (1991) mean when they say,
"for some students, then, their growth in competence as language
users may bring to them and to their families a confused and confusing
mix of pride, loss, and pain. this pain has at least two sources: one
coming from outside the student and the other from within" (p. 400).
I was very proud of myself when I graduated from high school and all
I wanted to do was go home and show my diploma to my parents. I had done
what I wanted to do, but in a strange kind of way, I felt alone and estranged.
It is true what Judith Newman says about "action research".
It "allows us to pose some important questions, it invites us to
see contradictions in our beliefs and practices, it affords insight into
the large political issues and, more important, it challenges us to change"
(1994, p. 13).
So what have I learned? I have learned that I have lied to myself and
I have tried to ignore and block some of the experiences I have had, because
I didn't want to face them. I now understand, from this inquiry, that
all of these things have contributed to my own confusion of who I am.
I had no idea what I was going to discover and I certainly did not know
that this journey was going to be this painful.
When I counsel or advise the students I now work with, I understand
their confusion, their feelings of isolation, their experiences with racism,
but what I had not done is to reflect on my own experiences. I thought
I had dealt with them, when in fact, I simply had placed them on the back
burner, hoping they would not come back to haunt me. It is clear to me
now, why I continue to feel these same tensions at work. I have not learned
yet, how to cope with any kind of misunderstanding and when something
confuses me, I alienate and isolate myself.
I do not remember having a "voice" in class; like Kohl I had
no one to talk to. I internalized my disappointments, my pain, and I would
never tell anyone about my shame. There has been two or three classes
in my graduate program, including the Action Research course I am taking
now, where I feel I have a voice. My thoughts wandered back to the class
and I wondered what the other students think of me. I wondered whether
I talked too much; something I was never concerned about in high school.
It certainly was not an issue in residential school.
In my first year, I learned very quickly not to question or answer back,
disobey or break the rules. When I look back on the second evening at
Sandy Bay, I now understand why it was so quiet that evening: we were
not allowed to talk. As Sellars, (1992) eloquently describes it, "we
were more like robots than normal children--always taking orders, never
involved in decision-making of any kind. We were never asked what we thought
or encouraged to think for ourselves. We learned very soon after arriving
at the schools that expressing ourselves, speaking our minds or questioning
anything would only get us into trouble" (p. 84).
Throughout high school and university, I would occasionally think about
the three years I spent in residential school and I would find myself
feeling embarrassed because I had actually attended one. I felt like I
had gone to a reform school. I resented having to tell any one where I
had done my grade nine. The truth is the concept of residential schools
intrigued me and I wanted to know the history.
When I accidentally arrived in Sandy Bay, at the age of fourteen, I
was totally unaware of the purpose of residential schools. Finally in
1994, I did a research paper on RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS: The Impact on the
Aboriginal Community. According to Miller (1989), "in these new institutions,
Indian children were insulated from the influences of their own people
and subjected to a program designed to lead them to forget who they were
and to adopt the ways and values of their teachers" (p. 112). It
is clear that the purpose of the institutions was not only to educate
and civilize the children, but also to convert them to Christianity.
When I decided to come to school, I thought I would go to a high school
like everyone else. Remembering the time I sat in the hallway at Sandy
Bay residential school, gives me the chills. I cannot believe I was not
punished. If I would have known, what I learned years later, would I have
actively resisted? How do I answer this question? I can only base it on
what I knew then and that was, I wanted to go where my mother wanted me
to go. At the time, that was the only thing that mattered to me.
Over the years, I have heard Aboriginal people refer to themselves as
"products of the residential school system" and I kept telling
myself that I was not. Throughout this inquiry, I have told stories about
my experiences in residential school and as I was telling my stories in
Bloodvein, I came to the conclusion that I am not only a product, but
I have been institutionalized. I work in a system, where I am scared to
say anything, and if I do, I do it to appease and I look for approval.
Both are symptoms of alienation. Admitting at work helped me understand
what Bissex meant when she said, "we share our meanings with each
other in the hope that the meanings of one person's story will help others
seek and find meanings of theirs" (p. 775). Not only is it time to
tell my stories but I must be true to myself so that others may find meaning
Bissex, Glenda. 1988. On Learning and Not Learning From Teaching. Language
Arts, 65 (8): 771-775.
Connelly, Michael & Clandinin, Jean. 1990. Stories of Experience
and Narrative Inquiry. Educational Researcher, June-July: 2-14.
Conroy, Frank. 1991. Think About Ways We Know and Don't. Harper's Magazine,
Grant, Beth. 1994. Writing as Witness. Women's Press; Toronto, Ontario.
Hampton, Eber. 1995. Towards a Redefinition of Indian Education In:
First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Edited by Marie
Battiste and Jean Barman. UBC Press Vancouver, British Columbia.
Harman, Susan & Edelsky, Carol. 1989. The Risks of Whole Language
Literacy: Alienation and Connection. In: Interwoven Conversations: Learning
and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. (1991) by Judith Newman. Toronto:
OISE Press. 392-406.
Kohl, Herbert. 1994. I Won't Learn From You. New York: The New Press.
Miller, J.R. 1989. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White
Relations in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Newman, Judith M. 1994. Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching
Newman, Judith M. 1991. Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching
Through Critical Reflection. Toronto: OISE Press.
Sellars, Bev. 1992. "Racism in the name of education" in Racism
and Education: Different Perspectives and Experiences. Canadian Teacher's
Federation: Ottawa, Ontario.
as Inquiry ] [ Literacy & Learning ]