The Current

He saw Kamloops residential school as a monster. With poetry, he denied it 'the satisfaction' of killing him

Kamloops residential school survivor Dennis Saddleman suffered devastating trauma after being forced to attend the institution for 11 years. But he discovered a talent for poetry in later life that helped with his healing.

Dennis Saddleman became a poet after years of abuse in Kamloops residential school

Dennis Saddleman was forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School for 11 years. (Submitted)

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WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Days after Dennis Saddleman was sexually abused as a child at the Kamloops residential school, he found himself standing on the banks of a river, feeling so ashamed that he wanted to disappear.

He was around eight years old at the time.

"I said 'River, river, if I jumped in, would you swallow me?'" remembers Saddleman, an Indigenous poet from Merritt, B.C.

"The river never said anything, all it did was just flow and flow." 

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. last week. Ground penetrating radar was used on the grounds, and a preliminary report indicated that the remains of 215 children could be buried at the site. (Andrew Snucins/Canadian Press)

Saddleman turned away from the river that day, and walked back to the Kamloops Indian Residential School. His abuser had warned him not to tell anyone about what happened, but when the young boy did pluck up the courage to tell the principal, he was accused of lying. 

He felt betrayed and abandoned, and took that "shame and anger and rage" with him when he left the school years later. He spent more than a decade struggling with alcohol and drugs, until one day he decided he wanted his life to change. 

"I was seeing myself crawling towards an open grave," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I didn't want to give the residential school the satisfaction that it killed me. I didn't want to give the satisfaction to my sexual abuser that he killed me. So I just put my foot down."

In his late twenties, Saddleman embarked on a healing journey with the support of other survivors. He got sober, returned to education, and eventually took writing classes at Penticton's En'owkin Centre, an Indigenous cultural and creative arts organization.

I didn't want to give the residential school the satisfaction that it killed me- Dennis Saddleman

He has found a way to express his anger and pain through writing poetry — as well as a writing career that has taken him all over Canada.

"It was like a healing tool," he said.

"I learned how to use words, because words, they can hurt or they can heal — depends how you use it." 

Saddleman's mother was Nlaka'pamux, and his father was Syilx. He grew up on the Coldwater Reserve near Merritt, B.C., and was forced into the residential school in 1957, aged six. He witnessed and experienced extensive physical and sexual abuse during the 11 years he spent there.

Last week, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that preliminary findings from a survey conducted by a specialist in ground-penetrating radar indicated the remains of around 215 children could be buried on the grounds.

The news left Saddleman thinking about all the "friends that I met there … [and] how some of them, they might have not made it."

He returned to the area for a vigil last Friday, "to be there for those beautiful children."

He also wrote a poem this week, The Drum Goes Bang, as a call to honour those who suffered and died.

The poem is "for all the people hurting and struggling," he told The Current.

"Don't matter who you are, if you know me or don't know me," he said.

"I just want to say that you're not alone. We're all together in this and we will rise and we will stand together."

LISTEN | Dennis Saddleman performs The Drum Goes Bang, written this week

Overcoming years of abuse

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." After years of inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final 2015 report described the system as "cultural genocide."

Saddleman said the children at Kamloops were slapped and beaten for the smallest infractions. If a child ran away and was caught, their heads were shaved before they were beaten with a strap. The other children were made to watch, the public punishment serving as a warning. 

Children at the Kamloops residential school were punished for the smallest missteps, Saddleman said. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

He remembered one morning being outside with other children and their supervisor. He saw a snake and began to chase it, excitedly calling to the other boys to come look. He called out in his own Indigenous language,  which was forbidden.

"Next thing I knew, somebody grabbed [the] back of my collar, and I looked and it was the supervisor. He was angry ... and he slapped me in the head," Saddleman remembers.

The boy was sent back to the dormitory, where he waited all day, missing meals. When the group returned that night, the supervisor said it was time for his punishment. He sent for a bar of soap, and yanked Saddleman's hair back so his face was up, his mouth pulled open.

"He put that bar of soap right in my mouth, and he just rubbed it, you know, just rubbed it really into my teeth and into my tongue there, and I was gagging for air," Saddleman told Galloway.

"To this day every time I see a bar of soap there, I can remember the taste."

WATCH | How trauma can play out through generations:

Cycle of trauma from residential schools lasts for generations

2 years ago
Duration 2:32
The trauma experienced by residential school survivors didn’t only impact the mental and physical health of one generation, it was passed on to their children, grandchildren and future generations.

When Saddleman left the school, he never wanted to look back. But the trauma came with him. 

"There was all the hate and the rage and the shame and the violence I was carrying inside of me," he said.

Writing helped him to express that anger, particularly in his poem Monster, which harkens back to his very first day at the residential school.

He described being six years old and standing in front of a huge, red-brick building. The double doors opened and several figures in dark robes emerged — the priests, nuns and brothers who ran the institution.

Saddleman remembers being very scared, and said "that's when that word monster came into my head."

"Those black creatures … they dragged me through the double doors. And soon as I went through those doors I felt like that was it; the monster was eating me up," he said.

LISTEN | 'I hate you, residential school'

He started writing the poem around the year 2000, after he returned to the old school building for the first time as part of his healing journey. 

It took him 10 months to write, but he says the process helped him realize that "all this hate, this rage, and the violence — it didn't belong to me."

With the help of his supporters and healers, he gave that anger back to the residential school, he said.

Helping younger generations understand

Saddleman turns 70 this year, and said he wants to celebrate the achievements in his life, such as being sober 41 years this year. He also wants to celebrate the achievements of his family, including the 23 people who call him Grandpa. 

In addition to performing his poetry as far away as Honolulu, he also visits schools around B.C., to "try to show them the real picture of what happened to us, the physical abuse and even our spiritual abuse."

He thinks it's particularly important given some other survivors are still struggling with shame and trauma, and can't pass on their own stories to help younger people understand the long-lasting harm.

"[I've] got to reach out to them there, and tell them what the resident school is all about."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of 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.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jodie Martinson.

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