Healing Journey After Residential School
- Louise Halfe | January 14, 2019
The journey toward healing is an on-going process. It is not only a one time visit to the therapist and it is not only the piercing of the skin at the Sundance, or participation in the sweat lodges.
We can sing, dance and talk all we want but the problematic behaviors we have learned will not change unless we do something about them. Certainly, singing, dancing and participating in our ceremonies are necessary and great contributors to our well-being. They should not be dismissed. The late JP Cardinal would announce to us that ceremony is our psychology. Healing ceremony is a daily activity. Healing work requires daily vigilance and engagement.
Many of us have been taught don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel and don’t think. This is not only in residential school but in other circumstances as well. It is up to us to break those rules. We must learn to accept responsibility, make choices and accept the consequences. In other words, we must learn to “trust our process.”
This is frightening. I used to have what is called the sabotage syndrome. I was afraid of being judged, shamed and abandoned. So…I acted out in my relationship to see if all three would occur. Lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, insecurity and jealousy were my mistresses. I’d look for ways to prove that I was unlovable. I’d blame my partner for causing me to act out. Trust was a huge issue. I needed to feel “safe” in any relationship I endeavored to have. I also wanted to belong…to someone, to family and to a community.
These were robbed when residential school was imposed on my parents, my siblings and myself. To make matters worse I internalized the racism implemented by that system. I felt my presence was unimportant. For the longest time I felt I had no talent and no abilities. I was so afraid to be a failure. I didn’t know how to go about making change. I didn’t know what resources were available to help me. Frankly, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
What was my motivation to change? I met my husband and we had a baby. I badly wanted to have a successful relationship and I didn’t want my children to inherit the scars that I carried.
Seeking and asking for help is the first act of humility. It takes courage to take that risk.
“Without courage, we cannot tell our story.”1
Healing is full of mistakes. For every twenty steps forward we take ten steps back. I certainly wondered when this would occur. I wondered when in heaven’s name would I begin to heal and improve my behaviors. The weight of shame, fear of abandonment, fear of being judged and ridiculed, being humiliated, along with guilt and anger are all aspects of our wounding.
These aspects are in fact wise teachers.
For example, shame teaches silence and alienates you from others. Guilt teaches that you’ve done something wrong and it wants change. Anger is a motivator, it wants consciousness and wants you to examine where the deep hurt is coming from. It too wants change. We are governed by fear. These emotions will act out, control us, lead us astray, trigger us, order us around and attempt to destroy those very people we profess to love. One needs to honor and embrace these shadows before one can move forward. We cannot deny them. They need to share the story of their origin. They urge us to move toward consciousness. They want transformation.
We need the skills of our ancestors and the animals to make sense of our world. The seven Grandmothers/fathers that reside in us need to wake up, get up and walk. These are love, wisdom, truth, honesty, respect, courage and humility. Instead of looking outward we need to develop the sight of the Eagle for penetrating self-examination. This takes a tremendous amount of risk taking and courage.We need the sunrise to illuminate our understanding that pimatiswin is borrowed time. The Thunder Beings teach us voice. Voice is needed for song, prayer and story sharing. We have to break our silence.
The water reminds us how we swam hrough the deep channels of our mothers where innocence began. I once heard an elder say the word “mother” is often the last word on our dying breath. We need to “mother ourselves.”
The lightning is our spiritual energy, it is the way forward. We need the Grandfather/mother Rock, the Mountain to remind us we have a backbone, we have strength and in our stillness we can learn to listen.
The wind contains the breath of ancestors, our loved ones that predeceased us and every living thing that ever existed on earth. The wind is spirit and soul. Therefore, we need to honor our breath.
We need the instinct of the wolf, to learn to track our behaviors, follow the scent of good will and sing in celebration. The buffalo faces and walks into the storm. We too must face and walk into our turmoil. But we need guides; Elders, teachers, counselors and therapists. We need them to validate and witness the stories that we’ve hoarded in our bodies and in our souls. No doubt we are already a mangled mess, twisted inside out by our wounding. Just as a stone is overturned, we need to turn these stories inside out to find the goodness we once possessed and knew. In the process we will squirm, rage and weep.
But it is only through breaking the laws of “the don’ts” that we reveal our truths and step forward. These stories and the Grandfathers/mothers morals and values that I mentioned earlier are our medicines. They will reveal themselves in our changed behavior. Sometimes there is so little self-respect to draw from that it’s difficult to go to that dark wilderness and trust someone with our deepest secrets. When and if it is possible one must go willingly, with humility, and face the demons. In the act of reclaiming our full-potential we lift the gift of choice. In essence, we learn to bless ourselves.
In the winter the bear goes into hibernation and lives off its fat. We too have that innate wisdom. It is what drives us forward in the first place when we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We must go into that dark healing place where light and lightness is offered.
There is no way around that deep laceration where our ulcerated souls have been subjected to sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual violence. Change can be excruciating. But if healing is what you are after you must do your research.
Find a good counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or someone who has the skills to help you medicine yourself. Educate yourself, read, read, read and read. Open your mind and heart. Go on an adventure of exploration. Ask questions of others. How did you do it? What was in your medicine bundle of knowledge to help you be successful? Be open to your dreams. Nightmares want to wake up your conscious self. At times dreams will poke fun at you and laugh. Other times they are prophetic, they will tell you an event will occur. They will help you problem-solve. They are in essence our guardians.
When I was growing up, my parents, my siblings and I would head to the sugar beet fields in Southern Alberta. We’d hoe row upon row, acres and acres of sugar beets. This gave us a sense of responsibility and satisfaction. It certainly gave me a sense of pride. I recently heard Chief Tammy Cook talk about her parents and their ability to butcher a moose and tan the hide to completion. The work ethic was instilled in her as well as self-respect, responsibility and self-reliance. We need and want to follow our aspirations and achieve our goals. We need purpose.
We all need to work at something.
The late John Tootoosis told his sons not to touch social assistance or he’d disown them. He wanted them to be totally self-governing. When I left residential school, I was aimless and rootless. The home and family I once knew had eroded as the years of residential school ate away our childhoods and teen years. It was difficult to dream. When you’ve been taught that you are a nothing what is the remote chance of success? There was no parental guidance. I had been “controlled” for so long that the ability of self-determination had been undermined.
My first psychiatrist dismissed me for reasons I believe were racist. This was in the early seventies and attitudes toward Aboriginal people were poor. In the late seventies I again took a huge plunge and entered therapy with a different psychiatrist. After therapy we became lifelong friends, until his death.
I was a student and co-facilitator at Nechi Institute where I learned about addictions, intergenerational trauma and the residential school experience. I re-entered therapy after having my eyes and heart re-opened. I had a wonderful psychologist who also became a lifelong friend. At the same time, I also embarked on my cultural and spiritual re- orientation with my Elders. I needed to reclaim my lost self. We are a resilient people and though we are scarred we have the capacity to continue living. But what is it we need from our neighbors, the settlers, as allies?
In therapy I needed to be heard. I needed compassion, kindness and respect. And I neede tools. In life I want fair treatment without animosity, stigma and racism. Racism is both personal and systemic, it has the tendency to be justified and is often entrenched.
Our friends need to examine “white privilege” and own their racism. We all have histories. For years Aboriginal people learned about the colonial history. A fair exchange of a different history is long overdue. We all need to understand treaty. The process of societal change needs to be a lifelong endeavor. I do not want to be disempowered by the savior mentality. I don’t want to encounter “talking heads”, but human beings with integrity.
We need honest and open dialogue. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean a life time of anger and grudges. In fact, it can open doors to different ways of perceiving. I don’t want to be a token “Indian” as I have often found myself in the past. Our voices need to be respected, and validated. We believe in wahkohtowin-relationship. And relationship needs and wants all the morals and values we profess to live by. I don’t want to be patronized, I need to be treated as an equal with intelligence. In many respects we all need and want emotional intelligence that will nurture. mental and spiritual intelligence.
Some journeys are not easy. The journey between the head and the heart is the most courageous one. We are a feeling people, which is a good thing. However, we also need to think before we act and before we talk. The Elders teach us peyahtik – go slowly, carefully, with kindness and respect. Be gentle with yourself. All my Relations. Ahow.