This article was originally published on Residential School Magazine under its original title “Let Me Tell You About Inter-Generational Trauma” and is republished with permission.
**Content note: this article contains discussions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and violence as well as suicide.**
My grandmother was placed in residential school at the age of 6. For the 10 years she lived there, she would be given a number instead of a name, and be called that number for the next 10 years.
I heard all sorts of horrific stories about the school. She told me how a little girl spoke her language and had her head smashed into concrete repetitively by the nuns, she remembers seeing blood everywhere. The little girl was only 7, and she was 6, witnessing this. She told me about how the nurses claimed she had Tuberculosis – when in fact, she didn’t, and she was placed on bed rest for 6 months at only 10 years old. She was not allowed to stand up, walk around, or basically move. My grandmother told me that the doctors would take skin off of her body, do experiments on her, without medication – and that the nurses would intentionally place sick children with healthy children, to get them sick. She told me about this one boy, who had been on bed rest for something crazy like 10 years – and how one day, he went mad, got up and jumped out of the window and killed himself.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to grow up in an institution like the residential school. The only thing I know is how inter-generational trauma is the foundation upon which my life was created – how, even before I was born, the stones of my life had been laid, environments filled with addictions, violence, abuse, and suicide, representing the glue holding the stones together. Through inevitable trauma and tragedy, I would watch the houses of people around me whom I loved, crumble and fall time and time again – some turning to dust, some trying to rebuild. Again and again, the houses would fall, and I would eventually find myself standing in a haze of dirt, rubble, grief and loss; an ocean of suicide, tormenting and unforgiving.
It wasn’t just me that these schools affected – we are talking hundreds of thousands of people who were directly or indirectly impacted by inter-generational trauma.
Inter-generational trauma is deceptive. It is unrecognizable to the untrained eye, and disguises itself as depression, mental and emotional disorders, selfishness, among many other things. Let me tell you about inter-generational trauma.
The children who went home after being in the schools, some never having visited their communities at all and having lived there for 10 years of their lives, were disconnected from their communities, families, parents. Most of them had witnessed violence, they had been starved, beaten, raped, sexually abused, dehumanized, told over and over again that their culture was devil worship and they were going to burn in hell if they didn’t accept God and Jesus as their savior – they were taught in the schools to be silent, not to speak about their feelings, so they turned their anger inward and began behaving in self-destructive ways such as drinking alcohol and doing drugs to cope with their feelings, and the cycles of domestic violence, addictions, and inter-generational trauma was created. When they became parents, they did not know how to express love – many people did not even know what love is, because they had not seen it or felt it in such a long time. The nuns refrained from hugging the kids or showing affection of any kind, so for some of the young adults, they hadn’t been hugged in 10 years, some for their whole lives. Anybody who studies human behaviour would know that humans are very intimate and connected beings. As babies, without touch, connection or love, human beings can die. Even if they are fed and have all of their basic needs met, they will not gain weight, they will not grow, and they can get diseases and get very sick and die. That is how important connection is for human beings – without it, we are nothing.
We had a whole Nation of people suffering from intense trauma and they did the best they could with what they were given. Unfortunately, our parents were the first to experience inter-generational trauma, with a lack of love and affection, being exposed to addictions and domestic violence, a Nation of people running from their emotions and their pain, drowning their sorrows in alcohol and blind rage.
Those that were lucky, were able to break those cycles and prevent them from continuing. But the majority were not. The children of the residential school survivors suffered greatly.
Our land was poisoned with a sexual sickness which was birthed in those schools, and invaded our communities. Molestation and sexual abuse at a rate which we have never before seen or experienced; rape being a normal word to use and be thrown around, even by children. The sickness spread like wildfire invading every family in one way or another, poisoning the minds of the babies and the children, stealing the childhood from anybody it encountered. I remember being 7 years old, and my cousins (who were the same age as me) got into an argument with another little girl, and they screamed at her:
“At least I wasn’t raped by my dad!” Yes, they were 7 too.
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Sexual abuse has been a part of my life since my very earliest memories. I was anywhere from 2-3-4 the first time I recall playing sexual ‘games’ with a grown up, though I can’t recall his face or who he was.
I remember some of the kids I grew up with knew these games too. So we played them together. It took me a very long time to realize that sex was something children were not supposed to know or do, and later on in life, I carried an immense amount of guilt, shame and hatred for myself. I felt dirty all the time, I felt used, I felt like that’s all my body is good for, and because I was sexually abused, raped by people that I thought loved me, nearly killed – I felt like I was always going to be worthless.
This is another dark secret that haunts our communities, lingering in the closets of every family, always present – everybody knows it’s there, but nobody wants to talk about it.
And then there was us. The children of the children of the residential school survivors.
We are very lucky to be in a position that no other generation has been before us. Though we are immersed in a society surrounded by violence, drugs, alcohol, suicide and sexual abuse – we are living in an era where Indigenous people, as a collective, have a stronger voice than ever before. We are living in a world where the true history of Canada is being revealed and we are being recognized as the powerful beings we are, to have overcome genocide and still be standing. When I was in school, I learned exactly ONE PAGE about the residential school. It was Canada’s best kept secret, the evil truth, hidden by the education system, the legal system and the government – keeping racism and ignorance alive and thriving for decades upon decades.
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Breaking those cycles was the hardest choice I ever made. When I made the choice to end the cycle of addiction, I decided to fight a battle every moment of every day, for the rest of my life. Alcohol will always be there, and so will pills. Ecstasy. Percocet. They will always be there, through every storm, through every heartache. When I decided to break the cycle of domestic violence, I had to turn inwards and look at myself. Find the broken parts of myself and decide that I was going to do anything I had to do to fix them – which meant crying, screaming, mental and emotional breakdowns, and allowing myself to truly process the traumatic events in my life which shaped me into who I am. I had to learn how to love myself. Because of the residential schools, I never had ceremony, I never had my language or the Ojibwe way of life – I had to seek it, and the first time I sat in a lodge, I knew exactly why they call it ‘the womb of the Earth’. I was reborn within that lodge, and I found a Sacred space within myself that I never knew existed – a place of safety, of harmony. A place of purity, and true happiness.
Our People used to be as the Buffalo – they would stand shoulder to shoulder, together, and be there to support one another as they entered the blistering cold storms, with so much snow they couldn’t see their next step. The important thing was they had each other, and they had the courage within them to walk headfirst into the darkest, scariest storms. Their strength came from their support, love and connection to each other.
But we have become like cows. Cows fear storms, so greatly infact that they often lose their minds, bumping into each other, knocking each other over when a large storm approaches. Except the way we run as Indigenous people, is by destroying ourselves with substances and destructive patterns of behaviour. We knock our loved ones over with our alcoholism and addictions, and they are injured by our fear, especially the young ones.
When I decided to break the cycles of inter-generational trauma, I decided to stop running away with the cows; and to turn around and enter the storm head first. The storm was my pain. The rape, the abuse, the domestic violence, the fear, the addictions, the suicides, the sexual abuse. That’s what the storm was, and that’s what I was afraid to face.
Sometimes the storm is light and manageable and sometimes, I am blinded. I can not see where I am going, but I can feel the warm bodies beside me, the love around me and the strength within me to take that next step forward. Some days are challenging, some are nearly impossible, and some days I feel like my days of addiction and abuse were a whole lifetime ago.
I am surrounded by other Buffalo, who are facing their own demons and we are walking side by side, through the storm, together. I sit in the lodge and pray, I belt out my rage and sadness with the drum and with music – I find other ways of expressing those feelings, instead of numbing them with alcohol, drugs and destructive patterns of behaviour.
My abusers tried to taint my light, but they couldn’t. I am whole. And after what seems like a lifetime of pain, I have finally learned how to love myself, to respect myself, and to realize that there is nothing wrong with me – I have forgiven myself for my mistakes, as well as forgiven those who have hurt me.
The hardest thing I ever did was forgive people who weren’t sorry. But I found that sacred place within myself to release that anger and move forward – with my ancestors behind me, my spirit within me, and the love I have been blessed with all around me.
My children will never see a man raise his hand to me, or feel the fear within their hearts when I am struck to the ground. They will not have to see me stumbling around in a drunken stupor, destroying things out of rage, and they will not be hit by me. My children have the gift of a mother, I will never leave them. As Creator is my witness, I swear that it would take an entire army to tear me away from my babies. I chose to give them the life I never had, to break those cycles of inter-generational trauma, and to find the love within and around me in a world full of chaos. I chose a path of Healing. I am pure, I am beautiful, I am whole, and I am worthy.
[Feature Image: A grey-scale photo of an Indigenous person with dark hair in two braids. They are wearing beaded necklaces and long sleeves. Their hands are on their hips. Other people are blurred in the background. Source: zachary o]
Mary Black is the manager of a group called “Bloodliine”. They provide workshops for youth on trauma, sexual abuse, domestic violence, suicide, addictions, incarceration and growing up in the care of child and family services. They also perform hip-hop music for youth, spoken word poetry and do motivational speaking. They incorporate Traditional drumming, dancing and language in their performances, in hopes to bring back the Traditional teachings to youth through music.
For bookings, inquiries and more you may contact Mary Black at: [email protected]