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Alphonse Little Poplar – A voice from Saskatchewan’s Residential School history

It’s important to all Canadians that voices from the Canada’ Residential School past are heard. Alphonse Little Poplar, 1921-1989, was born on the Sweet Grass reserve, near Battleford.

It’s important to all Canadians that voices from the Canada’ Residential School past are heard. Alphonse Little Poplar, 1921-1989, was born on the Sweet Grass reserve, near Battleford. He attended the Thunderchild Residential School until the age of 14, then returned to the reserve and took up a traditional First Nations life. He married Irene Fine Day, and in 1945 they began a mixed farm, which grew to 600 acres. He became active as a Cree historian beginning in 1969, when he collected stories for the book, Towards a New Past. His own history, Voice of Little Poplar, was recorded by David Doyle during 1986-87 - including his Thunderchild Residential School stories.

Doyle writes: Anyone who heard Alphonse Little Poplar’s voice remembered it. He also had the best memory of anyone I have ever met. A natural born storyteller Alphonse told of how as a kid he would just “hang around the wood stove” listening to the stories and legends of his people. He heard the legends of old, the tales of the great buffalo hunt, the coming of the Whiteman, the numbered treaties, the “Bad Times” — the era of the Northwest Resistance, and the time that history forgot — the era of self-sufficient farming on the reservations. The Voice of Little Poplar is Plains Cree Oral History giving voice to the ‘lost’ period of Canadian history. In light of the horror of unmarked graves, and the need for ground-penetrating radar taking place at the former Thunderchild Residential School, these are tales that need to be told.”

Following are Alphonse Little Poplar’s words, published with the permission of David Doyle and Little Poplar’s granddaughter Eden Fine Day Patten:

Thunderchild Residential School

All us kids had to go to school. We were sent to the Thunderchild Residential School. If your parents didn’t take you, the police would come and get you. For us guys from Sweet Grass it wasn’t too bad as we got to see our families, as it wasn’t too far for them to come and see us. For others it was a different story. I went with my cousin Ben; we were sort of like brothers.

I never heard of a school principal there, only a Sister Superior. There was one very old priest, Father Lagoff. We used to like to watch him put snuff in his nose to make him sneeze. That guy worked amongst Indians all his life, over sixty years. Old priests didn’t retire; he was in the town of Delmas as a very old man.

There was one Indian priest, he was a Chipewyan, but he talked Cree. He was from up north. He used to show us pictures of their camp; mostly tents, but a couple of teepees, around a lake. That was where they camped in the summer. In the winter they would go in the bushes. He had a lot of interesting stories. He was the only Indian priest I ever heard of. There was one guy here at the Big House, the old Territorial Capital, south of Battleford. He was a Brother. He had gone in to be a priest, but they fail too sometimes. So, to make him a Brother was the best they could do.

Father Allard, he used to be some kind of boss. He looked mean, eh, but he was a good father. He used to take us boys on trips to the other side of Paynton, and further north. He would get some of us bigger boys picking roots. They used to pay in tobacco. When I was nine years old I started smoking. That Father used to have a 2-wheel trailer. He would take us for rides in it. You could hook it behind his bumper. There was a lug sticking out and you just dropped a pin into it. It had no nut. We never thought anything about it.

We used to ride in it and it went like hell too. We used to tell him; “Faster Father, faster.”

When school was out everybody went home. That summer there was about thirteen that was stuck there. Their parents or guardians didn’t come and pick them up. Father Allard was to take them to Meadow Lake. The Father was taking a turn by Meadow Lake, and he slipped. As he s1ipped the pin came off and all them kids landed in the ditch. Lucky thing nobody got killed. I don’t think anybody got hurt too much.

Edward La Liberte never went home

Edward La Liberte was one boy from Meadow Lake who never went home. He never went home because he had no parents. His dad was gassed in the first World War and he spent the rest of his life in Saskatchewan hospital. His mom died giving birth to another baby that he never saw. There was three orphans there, Edward and his two sisters. They lived at Thunderchild School. I guess that one girl was little more than a baby, four or five years old. The nuns were so damn miserable they wouldn’t let him visit his sisters. There was a girl’s side and a boy’s side. He stayed in one side and they stayed in the other. They would not let these girls come and see their brother. Once in a while he’d see them walking somewhere or they would see him walking. They couldn’t walk together. They couldn’t even have dinner together. Edward died years later of a heart attack. He was a chief. They went to Saskatoon to a meeting. At night they went dancing and he died while he was dancing. That is what I heard anyways.

My Holy Shoe

The nuns all spoke French; they came from Quebec; Sisters of Assumption or something. Soon after I got there I found out that nuns were not afraid to kill me. Every Saturday afternoon a shoemaker used to come. You would bring your shoes and he would oil them, those that didn’t need repairs. He would patch up something for you if it was broke.

My shoe was in bad shape. The sole was just hanging on there by a couple of tacks. I had to walk with a slide and a slap with each step. I went down the basement to the shoemaker’s room to get my shoe fixed. Before you go in to see the shoemaker you have to tell a nun what is wrong. She records how many shoes he repairs. There was a big black nun sitting there. She was a half-breed, a Métis woman. And fat. On her ankle she wore a brace, a steel brace. You could hear her come for half a mile. She was sitting by the door on a chair. She asked me; “What do you want’?”

I showed her my shoe and said, “My shoe, the sole is damn near off.”

“Sit down there and take it off” she said, pointing to a bench beside her.

So, I just took it off and sat there.

“Give me that shoe,” she said.

Gee Whiz, that son of a gun hit me with it, right on the ear. She knocked me off the bench and if that was not enough she come at me again. This time I was watching and I rolled away. She hit the floor with a BANG. She got real mad, but just then another sister walked in. She didn’t hit me anymore. She might have killed me there, just for that shoe being holy.

That was a dangerous place

That was a dangerous place. One time this boy, Toby Dejarlais was sitting in the boy’s recreation room. That was a big room. Toby was sitting along the windows. The sister was across the room She told that boy something. The sister thought that he had heard, but that he wasn’t listening, just ignoring her. She got mad.

The windows were open. They were kept open by sawed off hockey sticks. She picked up one of those sticks and threw it across at Toby. That boy figured the sister was just trying to scare him, so he jumped to the side to make fun. He was going to make the sister laugh and he said, “I just dodged.”

She grabbed another one and threw it. He jumped again. The nun got real mad. She grabbed a hammer and threw that across the room. She just missed his head. That boy, he didn’t say, “I just dodged.” He took off on out of there and went and hid on that sister.

Boy, that sister got mad. She scared us, we thought she might turn around and take it out on us. That scared me. It would scare anybody. She was big. Honest she must have weighed 250 pounds.

After that Toby was a different boy. One time somebody blamed Toby for something. Sister Mary Lou sent for Toby. He came. He thought they were going to give him a chore to do or something. He hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Go put on your nightgown.”

“What for?”

“You are going to get a strapping for what you did.”

“I didn’t do anything.

‘Well, if you won’t put on your nightgown, hold out your hand.” She was holding a stick.

So, he put out his hand. When the stick came down he grabbed that stick and threw it. With a crash it went right through the window. He told that sister not to bug him again for nothing. Nothing came of it. I don’t know how she explained the window being broke.

Paul Spyglass

There was another one, Paul Spyglass. He died. They tied his foot to a chain on a wheelbarrow. He was hauling dirt back and forth from the garden to some flowers they had around the school. He was sweating. A sister came out there and told him that he must not stop, that he was to continue moving. He hit that nun. He gave her two black eyes. After that the Priest came and unlocked that chain and told him to go. He went home and died. He was sick already. He had TB. He was kind of a thin boy and it used to be that he didn’t have an appetite. That was a very nice boy. When he first come to school he didn’t know a word of Cree, just Stoney (Assiniboine). But he learned a few words, and after a while he was able to speak Cree. We only spoke Cree when the nuns weren’t around.

How that started was apparently there was a feud between Paul Spyglass and a boy named Earnest who we called “Skunk.” Earnest came to what they called the Summer House. It was a round building just outside the kitchen. They called it the Summer House, but in there was where they stored things. It was nice and cool in there. They would buy meat in big chunks, a quarter at a time then they would put meat in there.

Earnest was sent there to cut meat. After a while an argument broke out between Earnest and Paul. They had a fight outside the summer house. They wrestled for a while and then they started boxing. Earnest kept going closer and closer to the school, apparently he had a plan.

There is a set of stairs leading to a door that goes in the basement. This fella, Skunk, his idea was to knock Paul down there. You can see how he got the name Skunk.

Skunk kept backing up, hoping that Paul doesn’t know what is behind him. He was going to knock Paul down there, but just then this nun came. Sister Mary came from the porch right beside the basement stairs. She walked right into that fight. She just come there and right away that guy Skunk smacked her one on the mouth. She was big and tough, but she had a big swollen mouth. It was blue. She went down the stairs. Instead of Paul Spyglass like Earnest figured, he’d hit a nun. Those guys took off.

I used to work in the kitchen. I supplied wood there and carried out the ashes. I’d been watching the whole thing. So, I went down there to see, maybe I can help her, even though I’m kind of scared of her.

She was lying there but saw me. She asked me to help her get up.

I took her hand, she sat up, got to her feet and said, “Who was that that hit me—Skunk?”

I didn’t say, just hung my head, but she knew. I went back to work. She went away.

After that the nuns called the children to what we called the recreation hall. We were sitting down there and Sister Mary said, “See this here, these blue marks” pointing to her face, “I’ve got some teeth loose and you all know who did this. He’s in the ball and chain now.”

She talked there for quite a while but I didn’t understand half of what she said.

They put that guy Skunk on the wheelbarrow and then Paul Spyglass. Somebody was watching all the time to see that they don’t stop. It was like hard labour; finally a Priest caught them and put a stop to it.

The History of Paul Spyglass

They quit strapping Paul after Julian Morraste stopped them. Paul never did anything wrong, he was a nice boy. Paul had quit going to school he was working there for his board. He had finished up to Grade 8 or whatever they were teaching at the time. One day he had an argument with a nun while we were having dinner. He talked back and told the nun off. After a while the nun just walked off. She came back with another nun. They told him, “Go to the dormitory, get your clothes and get out. You’ve been here long enough.”

So, he got out. He packed his clothes and went a little ways north past where there is a little garden. Past the garden there is a little log shack. We used to see him there walking around. He lived there for a while. Us guys didn’t know it but I heard later that the boys in school used to steal food for him. One of them would have to get the cows in the evening or in the morning. They would walk close by there and take him some food. So, he lived.

At that time my dad came to Delmas to visit us. He bought a little food in the store in town, a can of stew, a loaf of bread and maybe half a pound of butter. At that time, you could buy half a pound. The guy would cut it for you.

To get to the school you had to go past the town. The old man went to this little house where people visiting the school often stayed. He was going to eat his lunch. By golly there was a guy there, it was Peter Bear.

The old man asked the guy; “You want something to eat, I got lots here.”

“No, I just had dinner, I have some food here.”

“Well, what are you doing here; I used to see you at the school.”

“They threw me out.”

“What for?”

“They threw me out, for arguing with a nun.”

“Well”, Dad says, “If you got nowhere to go, I’m from Sweet Grass.”

The guy says, “I’m from Water Hen Lake, but I’m also crippled, I don’t like to start walking I get tired if I walk too far.”

The old man says, “You can come home with me. Over there you will get a ride over to Battleford. I can give you a couple of dollars so you don’t get too hungry on the road and you can catch a ride with somebody in town. You can get home somehow.”

The old man came to see us. I had two sisters there and myself. We sat there and he told us about meeting Peter and that he had offered to take him to Sweet Grass.

There was a nun there who heard this and she said, “It wouldn’t be wise to take him home, that guy is kind of sick and he might die on you, then you could be in lots of trouble.”

The old man said later, “She scared me off; I thought he was going to die anytime.”

He didn’t bring him to Sweet Grass. He was only trying to help Paul, but I guess that’s what the nun’s didn’t like. They bullshitted him.

Peter Bear just disappeared one day.

Years later, after I had left school an old school mate, Tommy Bear, was walking by our house and he stopped. Somebody told him where we lived and we had a visit with him.

I asked him, “What about Peter Bear is he still living?”

“No, he died.” Tommy said. He got pneumonia and died. He lived east of Water Hen Reserve in a trapper’s cabin there. He found that cabin or knew about it and moved in as he had no parents or close relatives. He snared rabbits and lived there for some time. One night some guys come there. They want to know how to cross the river and where. It was early winter. The ice was not safe for crossing some places.”

Peter, he says, “I know where you can cross.”

But he missed that place he knew because it was dark. He took these guys across and they all fell through the ice. It was a cold night. These guys were OK because they were young and strong and healthy, but Peter he was already sick. He died from there. He got pneumonia and died in Meadow Lake hospital. That’s what happened to that poor boy.

Peter Bear

Peter Bear was a boy that walked with kind of a stiff leg. He walked like one leg was shorter than the other. Once in a while he would fall down. The nun would come running and pull her strap. They all carried a strap but hidden so people don’t see it. She would pull that out and would give that boy a lickin. He’d yell, just like a coyote, “Heel-eel,” till he’d pass out. Then the nun would go to work on him with the strap, till he would come around.

He would have come around anyway without the strap.

One day we were going to clean this place. We called it “the hole”. We were going down there and this guy fell down. Right away the nun, she, ran over and started hitting him.

Jullian Morraste, he was from Meadow Lake and somehow related to Peter Bear, stood up to the nun and took away her strap.

“Put that strap away; hide it where you regularly hide it. That guy is sick. He needs a doctor, not you. Don’t do that again, that’s cruel.”

By golly, that nun got scared. The nuns became scared of boys as they grew up.

They quit strapping him.

The Baker’s Burnt Bread

They would take us for a walk if we were good. Now they would call it a “field trip.”

It was a little more than a mile from the school to the river. We would go down to the river and fool around. We were coming up the hill and we were pretty well on top of the hill when this car came along, just creeping his way up the hill. It was the baker.

We jumped on and hung on to the spare tire that is in the middle at the back of the car. There was a little bumper on both sides. That old car would power out. Before it would stop dead we would all jump off, then we’d jump on again as soon as he started to go again.

We got that guy mad. He kind of stopped there. He was going to jump out and get us, but we pretended we were going to run away. We hung on as he got to the top to the hill. My cousin Ben stayed with him for quite a while, but then jumped off.

That guy speeded up as soon as we got on the level. Gee whiz, the cloud of dust we kicked up. I was fighting dust back there and I didn’t want to jump. “Surely he will slow down over there” I thought, “He knows I’m behind here.”

He didn’t slow down. I had to jump off there; I had no choice. If we went past the church, they would see me from the school and I would get a lickin’. I jumped off. The last thing I remember is hitting the road. When I woke up I was off the road and up a little bank and on the grass. The other boys came along just as I woke up. They had walked a mile. How long does it take to walk a mile? I had been knocked out that long.

At that school we used to get soup that was filled with not much more than the crusts of the bread that baker burnt. They would want to see us eat that burnt bread.

They would say, “If you eat that stuff you will get to be good singers.” We ate lots of that burnt stuff, but we never got to be good singers. Maybe we would have been if we hadn’t eaten it.

Winter In Bed

I went into the sick bay in January, and I stayed there until the 24th of May. I remember that day because the 24th of May was a big day for the Catholics. There was a procession there, right through our yard. I was in bed and looking out the window watching them. Then I went to the other window, a big window by the bathroom. I was way up high on the highest floor looking down. It was such a beautiful day. The birds were singing so I put on my clothes and I went outside.

I said to myself “Gee whiz, it’s a beautiful day, I wonder if I will get a lickin’, or if I’ll get chased back to bed.” I walked back and forth on the sidewalk, enjoying the day and watching the parade. Then they all went in the church. A nun come there. She said, “Oh, you’re out of bed. How nice. You feeling good?”

“Yeah I’m feeling good.” I says.

“Oh, that’s fine.”

So, I never went to bed after that. I might have been better a month or two before. The doctor came there only once, but he never said what was wrong with me. It might have been pneumonia or a touch of TB.

Lollypop

That same Doctor, Dr. Norquay, used to come there and act like a dentist, he’d pull teeth, too. These boys when they’d get a tooth pulled they would get a lollypop. My cousin Ben hadn’t seen any candy for a whole year. He thought, “By golly, I want to get one too. So he went over there.

“Which one is sore?” the old Doe said.

“This one.” There was nothing wrong with it.

“This the one that hurts?” old Doc Norquay asked.

“Yep.”

Holy, that must of hurt. No needle or nothing. Ben was going to yell or cry out, “stop!” But he noticed that the Doe had already pulled it out.

After that he pretended to laugh, the nun gave him two lollypops cause he laughed. That was pretty good pay, but he didn’t try it again.

Another Damn thing

There is another damn thing they used to give us at school. Early In the morning we would go to a chapel, a kind of a church inside the building. It was quite a long walk, damn near to the other end of the building, to the girl’s side.

Before we left our dormitory, there was a door that we had to go through to get out to the hallway. Standing there was a guy and he’s got a pitcher of the most awful tasting cod liver oil you ever saw.

That thing smelled like rotten fish and tasted worse. Some guys would damn near throw up when they smelled it, and if they did throw up they would get a lickin’. That’s why they didn’t throw up, otherwise they would have.

This guy that worked there, Joe Chicken, if he was your friend he would let you go, he wouldn’t give you any. But if he had no use for you, or had something again, you, he would give it to you twice. If you didn’t agree to it, he would call the nuns.

“He didn’t take his cod liver oil yet, he refuses.”

Then they would get a lickin’ and they would still have to take another dose.

Dose of Salts

At that school there they used to give you a dose of salts. They would come up there and the nun would mix up this stuff and give you half a glass. Then you were to make your bed, get washed up and then line up to use the toilet. After we were done they would take us down to Mass, than after an hour or so of praying we could go for breakfast.

One time the nun who made the salts wasn’t there and another one was. She checked the schedule and this was the morning these boys were to get their salts. She mixed it up, lined these boys up in their nightshirts and gave them each a full glass.

There was no cheating as she stood there and made sure It all went down, even the little bit at the bottom. They were done and she sent them to make their beds. Well, they were making the beds and one fellow starts running toward the washroom. He’s holding the back of his shirt out and, oops, there is a big brown streak following him.

The nun must have thought, “He must have had a delicate system.

Soon, another guy is running to the toilet. Pretty soon everybody is lined up to use the toilet. One guy at the back tried to push his way up front and, oops, he let go too. Then another guy tried to get up front. He slipped and fell in the other guy’s mess.

By golly, before it was all over they sure had a mess that day.

Graduation

I didn’t go back to school in 1934. The old man told me not to go back. It was the end of June and I had finished Grade 7. We were getting ready for two months holiday and we were all excited. A guy came and told me, “The Superior wants to see you upstairs in her office right now. You are to go right away.”

So I went over there. The door was closed. I knocked on the door and the Superior, Sister St. Patrick, I knew her, said, “Alphonse.”

“Yes.”

“You wait there a minute.” Apparently she was talking to another guy. So I waited there a minute, a guy come out and I went in.

She said, “Sit down.” She was shuffling papers on her desk, looking for my report. “Eh, you finished grade seven, good for you. But I have bad news. We are not going to be having a grade 8 teacher. She is not coming back and we are not going to look for another one. They’re hard to find. You can come back, but, you won’t be going to school. You’ll be working. You will be taught to work so you will make a good living when the time comes. You are just a boy yet, it’s not time for you to go, you should be going to school yet, but we can’t help you.”

I thought of Peter Bear immediately.

So, what do you say? Are you going to come back? Yes or no? That’s what I want to know.”

“Well right now, I can’t answer that because I have to speak to my grandfather and my father to see what they think. I live with my grandfather, sometimes I live with my dad, and I’ll see what they have to say. I’ll either come back or I won’t.”

“OK. Undecided.” She wrote that in her book.

So I come home, and I told the old man about it. Well, I told my grandfather first about it. “Oh, it’s up to you. You are old enough to do your own thinking. From now on you’ll have to start doing your own thinking. You are a young man.”

Then I asked the old man.  “Ah hell, B.S. that’s just a scheme that they cooked up so they don’t have to hire a guy to work out there. They are going to put you to work. Like they’ve been doing right along.

It was true. I used to work something awful over there. When it was time to come home I got $5 for a year’s work. I fed the pigs; I cleaned the pig pen. I didn’t look after the chickens, there was a nun looking after that, but I cleaned up the chicken litter. 1 worked in the furnace. I carried the ashes out a quarter of a mile away to where there was a big hole. It was also the sewage hole from the sewer. I carried the ashes from the kitchen back there.

“Dump them in that hole and nowhere else, is that clear?”

Then I carried wood for the furnace. It was cut in four-foot lengths. They burned coal, but I had to keep a large stock of that cordwood handy. It must never run low. Every day I carried it because it had burned some little bit in the meantime.

In the kitchen too I did the same. This wood had to be split, but they were good enough to see that it was too much for me. They would get a guy to split this wood over there. But he did it half assed. A big piece he’d split it in two. It would still be too big for to go in the kitchen stove. And he was a kind of a guy who didn’t like to be told what to do. He had an awful temper.

One summer like day I told him about it, “This wood should be split again, it should be split in four, not in two. It’s still too big if it’s only split in two.” 

“Ah, to hell with you.” he said. “You go to hell, you work here if you want to.”

“I haven’t got time; I got too much to do,” I said.

Then he took a swing at me, but I ducked and he missed and I took off.

I was a fast runner that time. I went over to a little row of buildings. There was an icehouse, and what they called the ironing room next to it, and next to that was another building. I didn’t know what that was, but I tore past it. The next one they called it the “Shop.” I went around those buildings and there was a nun there weeding. She didn’t see me. I stopped there and looked behind me. This guy never come around the corner. He must have knew there was a nun there. He was waiting for me. I had to come back. There was no other way as there was page wire between them buildings. I couldn’t get out.

Well I had to get out somehow, but there was the only place I could go and he was going to sock me one when I come around the corner there. But the nun when she saw me she thought I come to help her, so she give me her hoe. I took the hoe and I pretended to work. She started walking off and as she turned the corner that guy socked her one. He didn’t knock her down. He kind of missed her. But she staggered around a little bit and got back her balance.

“Ok, you go to the dormitory and put on your nightgown.”

That meant he was going to get a strapping. So, I put the hoe down and I went back to that wood and I split the rest of it to make me a load in the wheelbarrow. It was already split in two, and I split it again in four and I hauled that into the kitchen.

They cooked with that wood. They had a stove with six ovens in it. They made a fire under both sides. One would get three ovens hot; the other would get the other three hot. That is what I did year-round, in the summertime, and in the wintertime. I really wasn’t going to miss that life.

From the Glenbow Museum Fonts