(Trigger warning: this content mentions residential school abuse)
NORQUAY — Martha Quewezance of Canora is a member of the Keeseekoose First Nation. She currently serves as a mental health worker at the neighbouring Key First Nation. As part of a program hosted by the Norquay School, Quewezance was invited to be a virtual guest speaker during Indigenous Storytelling Month.
The Norquay School shared the following information about the program on the school’s website:
“First Nations people have long passed on knowledge from generation to generation through oral traditions, including storytelling. Storytelling is a traditional method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. First Nations storytelling is a foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning. Traditionally, it is during the winter months that First Nations storytelling occurs.”
Quewezance, 62, kindly agreed to an interview with the Kamsack Times to share deeper insights on what she presented to the school on the topic of ‘building relationships'. From her own home in Canora, Quewezance quietly reflected on what she considers some of the most beautiful lessons passed down from her mother, the tragic testimony of surviving a multitude of residential school assaults, her personal progress in identifying triggers that evoke post-traumatic stress, and the exponential growth of her Christian faith.
Quewezance: The first lesson in building relationships is listening. People need to make that love connection. When two people come together to sit and talk, both parties must take the time to listen and be observant. In the old days, we were taught to just listen and observe before it was your turn to speak. We were taught to not rush people for information. We were also taught to respectfully listen to older people, women, and children. The act of listening becomes a gift for both parties. Technology has made everything about instant information and people seemed to have lost the ability to listen with any real patience.
At school, my 20 year-old-son still hears echoes of the outdated beliefs that have been passed down through non-Indigenous generations. People still make statements like: “Native people don’t work. They get free schooling. They don’t pay taxes. They get handouts. They are given everything for free.” Those are ignorant statements from outsiders looking in with judgment. I am so proud that my son doesn’t get defensive or angry. Instead, he makes a point of telling people; “Those assumptions aren’t true. Do you really think you know what you’re talking about?”
I believe both ends have to be open-minded. If people took the time to actually listen, they would see these are all untrue. There is so much ignorance taught about treaties. Land was taken. There were agreements in place and the government is still not holding up their part.
After all these years, I can look back at what I have been through – the residential school abuse, pain, and trauma – and I know that God was there with me. In residential school, we were taught by the nuns to memorize and recite scripture, but we were never taught or shown the true meaning of those words. Many Indigenous people see the Bible as pain and hurt, full of wrong teachings. It was how it was presented. Sometimes I battle with that. As an adult, I have come to understand that I need and love the Bible, but even sometimes when that memorized scripture comes up, it can trigger horrific memories. I had everything done to me as a child. Every kind of abuse – you name it. I was blessed to make it home. I continue to work on unlearning the lies of my trauma and recognizing my triggers.
There were three priests in the 1960s at the St. Phillip’s day school that were particularly sadistic. Boys especially were brutalized and sodomized by these men. For decades, many victims looked for any way they could to numb that pain – which created unhealthy relationships within their own families and community. Today, it is prescription drugs and it has become a huge problem.
Imagine being told at five years old that you and your parents, grandparents, and cousins were all dirty, bad, heathen, and unworthy savages. Boys and girls were separated. We were forced to eat foods that were foreign to us – and if we didn’t clean our plates, we would be beaten. Children would often come to each other’s rescue when the nuns stepped out of the room. They would quickly eat the food the other children couldn’t or exchange plates. There was no love, no compassion, and no nurturing.
My mother was a soft-spoken, gentle, loving, and caring woman. She couldn’t read or write English. I remember bringing notices home from school for her to sign. Of course, she couldn’t read them and that made me feel embarrassed. We were so brainwashed. There is a lot we still need to unlearn.
One day when I was in kindergarten, one of the nuns decided to parade us past our homes in front of our parents. There was dead silence. I don’t know what that nun was thinking. When my mom saw me, she offered me a package of gum, not realizing that I would later be beaten for stepping out of line.
When you hear about the thousands of missing and murdered women out there, you understand how First Nation women continue to be discriminated against. In our traditional culture, women were viewed with great prestige. They were considered precious and they were honoured for giving the gift of life, nurturing, and providing love.
When I was invited to travel to Edmonton and speak at a Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) panel in front of thousands of people, I was given only 15 minutes to share my story. I felt a responsibility to speak of my own trauma, as well as the history of what my sisters went through. I was the youngest daughter – the baby of the family. My older sisters often tried to take the abuse to protect me. As adults, they had a hard time talking about their own horrific experiences. They didn’t want to bring up those memories, so I felt the responsibility to tell their stories too. And 15 minutes just wasn’t enough time. I didn’t feel the closure I needed. None of us were involved as we should have been. We weren’t asked what the process should be. It felt as though we were asked to pick old scabs and then just left to deal with those freshly exposed wounds on our own.
All of us are left to do the work on our own. Many people can’t recognize when they are being triggered. Sometimes the pain and anger seem to come out of nowhere. Personally, I try to focus on my special relationship with God – going deep and praying for understanding. I need to find that peace for the sake of my grandchildren. I want to be joyful around them. There is no place for bitterness.
When those priests and nuns did unspeakable damage while teaching us to memorize the Bible, it caused many to turn away from it. However, I have come to understand that the lessons of the Bible are the exact same as the foundation of our culture – which is love, patience, kindness, caring and trust. These were the gifts we always cherished from the old culture. Before the brainwashing, we were taught to be of service to God through being of service to our community. We were taught discipline, structure, and respect for all – including the old people, women, and children. We used to go to the old people for advice and guidance daily. Some of the most profound lessons I have learned have come from listening to a 10-year old with special needs and being a friend to a man with no arms and no legs. God gifted me these beautiful friendships and I learned so much from simply offering my respect and listening to them.
In our language, the word “mano” is a beautiful word with multiple meanings. It can mean: ‘let it go’/ ‘it’s okay’/‘forgiveness’/‘kindness’/‘being humble’. Our language has so much beauty in the way things are said or translated. I can still see the beauty of our culture, our language, and our community – how wonderful it all was before the interruption of another culture.
When I see or hear my mother’s love and compassion coming through statements from my oldest son who is now 46, I realize our culture is still alive, present, and vibrant. It may not be coming through our language, songs, dance, or ceremony as much – but it will always come from our creator, God, who tells us we have His permission to live as spirits on this earth. Now is the time to rebuild and unlearn the things we were made to believe about ourselves when we were children. If I can do that and pass down the true foundation and teachings of our culture, then I have done my mother's work.