I Dug Up Burial Grounds To Address Indigenous Erasure — And My Own Family Trauma

"When I was younger, I didn't think in terms of systems — just experiences. Now I know better."
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Getty
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When I was 12, I buried my father alive. I don’t mean that literally, but sometimes it feels like it. I used to tell people that he was dead. That truth was more digestible and less tragic for people to accept than reality. I imagined him in a burial ground, one of the unmarked ones found at residential school sites, yet buried deep within me. It’s a type of grief that I carry with me as I analyze all the systems that destroyed us.

When I was younger, I didn’t think in terms of systems — just experiences. When I was in college, my father having been removed from my life for years, I started questioning my family history and how my father could have done what he did and began researching the Sixties Scoop.

The Sixties Scoop refers to child welfare policies in Canada from the 1950s to the ’80s that forcefully removed tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their families (usually without consent), placing them in white foster homes. My paternal grandfather was one of those children. During my research, I stumbled across a type of personal ad in a newspaper: A boy named Arthur, who was reportedly taken during this movement, was up for “adoption.” Some children’s names were then changed so that their relatives couldn’t find them, and to this day people are reconnecting with their long-lost relatives.

The Adopt Indian and Métis (AIM) program administrators believed that if the children were removed from their homes early enough, they wouldn’t “imprint” as Indigenous people. John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada and a key proponent of creating and disseminating the residential school system, told the House of Commons in 1883:

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

AIM enforced the belief of Macdonald, creating what is considered a tragic chapter of the Sixties Scoop, further severing Indigenous family ties after the era of residential schools. Families were displaced and disrupted, and the tradition of passing down oral history, language and legends was severed.

When the children were taken, our ties to our identity were ruptured, and that loss still reverberates today. Much like the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop was part of a broader plan to “kill the Indian in the child.”

But did they kill the Indian in the child, or did they kill something else entirely?

When I read Arthur’s ad, which appeared in Canada’s Regina Leader-Post newspaper on Nov. 14, 1972, I saw that young boy, and I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. Did he and his siblings have pictures of themselves in newspapers somewhere, too? I think of my father and the disruption in my family. I think of the intergenerational trauma that trickled into my life like the cycle of water. If the residential schools were the groundwater, then the Sixties Scoop would be transpiration, and my father, the direct descendant of a Scoop victim, would be the cloud.

Was I the rain? Releasing all of these inherited violences through my words?

I am a Cree, a Métis, and I also occupy white spaces in cities. People ask me what I am on a weekly basis. They refer to me as the exotic one and racially ambiguous. But if you are Native, you can recognize me instantly. I was conceived in the Canadian Rockies and ran through canola fields in the plains, and now my feet walk through the bricked buildings of New York City. I am an Indian, a Native, an Aboriginal, an Indigenous. I am a smudger, a listening student, a dreamcatcher weaver, a drum maker, a girl in a sweat and a storyteller.

The author as a child with her father.
The author as a child with her father.
Courtesy of Chyana Marie Sage

I remember a time when my father was in my life. I was 7, and we sat in a circle with the flame as our center. I looked down at my black combat boots. Looking up from bare, scarred legs, I met the eyes of my dad. He looked back at me, the ember glow illuminating his high cheekbones, which cast a shadow under his buffalo eyes. My buffalo eyes. The flame spat and crackled at my feet below. He opened his mouth and told stories of the Witigo, an evil spirit and cannibal who prays on the human spirit. I went to pee in the forest. My dad called after me, “Make sure Witigo doesn’t come get ’chu.” I ran in and out as quickly as I could.

I am now 28, I haven’t seen my father in over 10 years and I cannot remember the specifics of the Witigo — but I want access to my roots. He was in and out of prison throughout my life, and when he went in for his final incarceration, we disavowed him. He was no longer our father or a husband. He turned into our burial ground.

I reached out to my dad earlier this year to see if he would be willing to share stories and questions about his childhood. The days carried on and his silence grew louder. I realized I may not get answers from him.

I knew my father learned all of those stories about Witigo from my grandfather, whom I hadn’t spoken to since my father’s final sentencing. At the beginning of this year, deep within the process of writing my memoir, I reached out to my grandfather on Facebook and asked if he would be willing to share some of our stories with me.

A few days later, I got a call from an unknown number from Vancouver, Canada, the saltwater shores of where I was born.

“Tansi!” A big voice jubilantly bellowed the Cree word for “hello.”

“Who is this? I asked, even though I knew who it was.

“Mah, it’s your grandpa Frank!” We both started laughing. We made small talk for a couple of moments. Then he said, “I was thinking… I don’t remember all the stories, but I remember one real good, eh. Maybe it’s time to tell you about your grandpa’s life.” Before we hung up the phone, we said, “Love you,” and even though this man had not been in my life since I was a young girl, nothing felt more natural.

When my grandfather and I spoke again the next day, it felt as if there was never a reason for us to be absent from each other’s lives. Amid the persistent, gut-wrenching pain of my father’s incarceration for molesting my older sister, I never had time to grieve the loss of my paternal grandparents. We had been grieving the ultimate betrayal and the loss of our father simultaneously.

As I spoke with my grandpa, I realized how much I had inherited from him: among them, the way he tells stories with humor, seriousness and sanctity. The way he laughs at his own jokes. The way he speaks candidly about the bad shit and then makes you laugh a few moments later. Storytelling runs in my blood. And as much as I wanted to disavow my father, he will always be a part of me, the way his father is a part of him.

If you compare my appearance to my father’s, you will see our high cheekbones, smiles that don’t reach too wide and deep brown eyes that light up amber in the sunlight. We have the same shape of face with a nose that tips downward when we smile, and we inherited it all from my grandfather.

The author with her paternal grandfather, who as a child was taken from his family.
The author with her paternal grandfather, who as a child was taken from his family.
Courtesy of Chyana Marie Sage

But what about the things we don’t want to inherit? The things that we reject? I see and have felt the way my father inherited that violence from my grandfather, passing it on, and how it created a death in our household: his own.

My grandfather used to be a violent man. Even though the man I knew was never violent, I found through conversations with my mother that the man that my father knew growing up was quite different. When we spoke on the phone, I asked my grandpa a complicated question: “Where do you think that violence came from?” He paused before answering. “I would say it came from them ripping us out of our home.”

My grandfather then told me the story of when he and his siblings were taken away from their mother and how something in him died that day. A hardness took over his boyhood and followed him for years. “Too many years,” he said. I always knew him as a big, tough, strong man with those old ideals of masculinity coursing through his blood, but when he told me his story, tears streamed down his face freely.

Intergenerational trauma describes how trauma travels down through our lineage, and the Sixties Scoop and residential school system are two clear contributors for my family. What happened continues to hurt survivors and even their children’s children. A collective trauma. A disruption in the lineage. As I begin to process what happened to my ancestors, I can feel the residue of the brutal breakdown of a family structure. I can’t help but wonder how different our family would have been if my grandfather wasn’t taken away and exposed to the violence that he experienced in all of those foster families. And so I grieve what could have been: a healthier, happier us.

Most of us have been affected on all sides of the family. My mother’s paternal grandmother’s name is Alice, but we call her Chickadee. She is a small but spry Cree woman, built from bannock and blueberries. She spent time in the Grouard Residential School but never spoke about what happened to her there. When the government started digging up gravesites at the school sites, she was one of the survivors to point out exactly where they buried the children.

When I listen to my grandpa and my grandma Chickadee’s stories, I think of Arthur. I think of the way missing children end up in newspapers, on milk cartons, billboards, and I cannot help but think of my grandfather — the original disruption in our lineage. When my grandfather got out of the child welfare system, he hadn’t seen his brothers and sisters in years. He hadn’t seen the younger ones for 20 years. They were all scattered with different names in different foster homes with white, often abusive families.

What happens to the lost children? What were the repercussions when the government declared stolen children as “found” children and then portrayed them as up for adoption?

I used to tell people that my father was a ghost. After all, he was my burial ground. My forgotten one. My covered-up one. One where someone would have to point out the site and say, “It happened here. If you start digging, you will find him.”

Well, I dug him up and pieced him back together as a way to make sense of our history. I dug him up and traced our past back through him to discover a strong connective thread and as a way to understand why so many of my fellow Indigenous people suffer in all the ways that my family has.

And I will keep digging as a way to ensure that I do not let the cycle move beyond me.

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