Beaten for speaking Blackfoot at residential school, this Siksika woman now teaches it in the same building
'We've been undoing what this place tried to do as a residential school': Vivian Ayoungman
Originally published on June 29, 2021
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
After being forced to attend the Old Sun Indian Residential School in the 1950s, Siksika woman Vivian Ayoungman is now a teacher in the same building, helping to preserve the knowledge and culture of her people.
"We've been undoing what this place tried to do as a residential school. We've been teaching our language, we're reconnecting our students," said Ayoungman, who teaches at what is now the Old Sun Community College on the Siksika Nation, outside Gleichen, Alta.
The building was the site of a residential school from 1929-1969, but was turned into a community college by the First Nation in 1971. It now offers adult learners the chance to study Siksika culture, or take academic upgrading, literacy and post-secondary programs.
"It gives me hope that our people are not only learning skills and tools to live in the current day and age, but to also know who they are as Siksika people," Ayoungman told The Current.
It's a far cry from when Ayoungman and her siblings were forced to attend the residential school (as were their parents before them). She said the school tried to turn them into "institutionalized, quiet, obedient robots," divorcing them from their language, culture and each other. The siblings were not allowed to speak, and stayed in different quarters.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools between the 1870s and 1990s, a project of church and government established to "take the Indian out of the child." The TRC's final 2015 report described the system as "cultural genocide."
Ayoungman came to the school at age seven, not speaking any English. She remembers an incident in her first year, while playing a game of tag with other children.
The children were all running around and enjoying themselves, she said, when she saw that her cousin was about to get caught.
She screamed to her cousin to watch out — but called not in English, but in her own language, Blackfoot.
"All of a sudden, the whistle blew. We all stopped … we knew somebody was in trouble," she said.
"The supervisor came right towards me, grabbed me, shook me because I spoke Blackfoot."
She was sent to the principal's office and punished by being strapped on the hand. When she came back, the other students were lined up and play had been stopped, as a group punishment.
"The supervisor was telling everybody, 'This is what happens to you when you speak your language,'" she said.
Ayoungman held on to her language despite the school's abuses, teaching it to others and even developing an app to help people learn Blackfoot in 2016.
Decades after she was punished that day, she told that story to a class she was teaching in the same building, made up of young adults learning the very language she had been beaten for speaking.
"All of a sudden my students were cheering, clapping, and they said, 'They didn't beat it out of you, you were so resilient! We're so thankful now you're teaching it to us,'" she said.
"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, you know, I never even thought of it that way.'"
Preserve buildings as 'evidence'
Last week, the Cowessess First Nation announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina, Sask. The news came after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation last month announced preliminary findings indicating the remains of 215 children at a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
Ayoungman knows of children who died at the Old Sun Indian Residential School, and has heard stories of other deaths as well. She said the community college has been in contact with the Siksika Nation, and a search of the site for unmarked graves will be conducted.
She was very upset to learn about the discoveries in B.C and Saskatchewan, particularly because Indigenous communities have been saying burial sites like this existed, and "no one believed it."
She's seen people online saying that the buildings of former schools should be destroyed, burned down or blown up.
"I say, no, we have to keep the evidence," she said.
If it took finding "all these graves to believe that we didn't fabricate this, it's more important for the few buildings that remain standing to stay standing, as a testament to what really happened to us," she said.
While she understands that some survivors may find it too traumatizing to return to the building, she thinks the Blackfoot leadership made a wise choice in the 1970s "to turn the building into something more constructive."
"Our late president always used to say it's not the building, it's the people who were in the building," she said, adding that other elders have said that "where they took your language away, that's where you have to go to get it back."
Reconnecting with traditional knowledge
Ayoungman started work at the community college in 2010, after stipulating that she wanted to work with ceremonial knowledge keepers.
"I knew that they were the ones that knew our roots and our history," she said.
Queen's University's Office of Indigenous Initiatives defines a knowledge keeper as someone who "holds traditional knowledge and teachings," and who has been taught by an Elder within their community "when it is and is not appropriate to share this knowledge with others."
But in learning from the knowledge keepers, Ayoungman realized just how "disconnected" she felt.
"I quickly learned that I was hanging by a thread, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, everything, because I did not know my roots," she said.
She recalled her first day at the school all those years ago, when her own clothes were put in a sack and locked away in a closet, and she was given a standard-issue school uniform.
"It was almost as if they told us 'put everything you brought from home into this sack, your clothing, your language, your culture, your family affiliation ... and throw it in the closet, and we'll lock it up until you're ready to go home."
Ayoungman lived at the school for almost a decade. She has always been angry to think about "how I was cheated out of knowing the things I'm supposed to know, because I was in this place."
But her experience with the knowledge keepers has changed that.
"I'm not as angry anymore, because I think to myself, I always thought that knowledge was gone forever," she said.
"Working in developing this curriculum, implementing it, sitting through the courses myself, it has been, yes, a really healing journey for me."
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 survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ellis Choe.
Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.