First Nations artists process grief from Kamloops residential school discovery through their work

Some Indigenous artists are turning to their craft in order to process their emotions following the discovery of the remains of 215 children on a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.

'Creating art helps me heal what has been taken from me and my family,' says Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell

Cree and Abenaki artist Nalakwsis drew 415 braids saying, 'I meant it to be sets of braids. Not just for the 215 found, but it can be for their families, and siblings and for the remains that are yet to be discovered . . . Or each braid can represent 100 children or each family. You can see the numbers how ever you like.' (Nalakwsis)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

An artist from northern Quebec turned to art as a way to grieve after learning remains had been found at the site of a former residential school in B.C.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School with ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of 215 children were on site. 

"Art has always just been my way of speaking without any words," said Nalakwsis, a Cree and Abenaki artist who uses they/them pronouns.

The artist is from Whapmagoostui, Que., on the coast of Hudson Bay. 

One of the drawings that Nalakwsis created as a response to the news was of 415 braids, 200 pairs and 15 single braids. 

"The braids are very significant to me and to my people and the cutting of the braids signifies loss," they said. 

"When you cut your hair, it's when you have lost something or somebody close like a parent or a child. The first thing they took from Indigenous children was their hair and then everything else."

Art as therapy

Megan Kanerahtenhá:wi Whyte is from Kahnawake, Que., and is an art therapist and local artist who primarily works with Indigenous youth.

"Sometimes, taking a talking approach can be difficult, especially if there's trauma," said Whyte.

She said art is important because it helps people process emotions, take action and grieve.

"I think art making is one of those powerful opportunities to take all that pain and to create something that's meaningful," said Whyte.

Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell's piece titled Bringing them Home features a thunderbird above a residential school. (Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell)

Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell from Wasauksing First Nation in Parry Sound, Ont., said he's had heaviness clouded over him since hearing of the discovery in Kamloops.

He said he has experienced intergenerational trauma because members of his family attended residential schools and his mother was part of the Sixties Scoop.

To help sort out the emotions he's feeling, Rushnell turns to art. 

"Creating art helps me heal what has been taken from me and my family," he said.

Recently he created a piece that shows a thunderbird flying over a residential school building, which he said is bringing the children home and destroying the building. 

Rushnell said while making this picture, he was flooded with emotions that ranged from sadness to anger.

"After creating this piece, I felt my mind had gotten a lot clearer and my thoughts weren't so bad anymore," he said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.