Photo: Archives of Canada
There are four things that all native people in this country will be asked or told at some point in their life: Do you have a spirit name? I love Tom King/Joseph Boyden/Sherman Alexie/A Tribe Called Red/Robbie Robertson. What the hell do you people want? And finally, Did you or someone in your family go to a residential school?
In the arc of life that is aboriginal existence, this last issue seems to be the focus of much of our psychological, legal and creative exploration. Sad, considering it used to be moose hunting, canoeing and negotiating treaties.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a congratulatory statement on the occasion of National Aboriginal Day Saturday, June 21. And encouraged Canadians to take the opportunity to "learn more about our country's history." I took that to mean not necessarily native history or residential schools.
In recent years, a plethora of artists have provided their own interpretations of the subject.
Novels such as Robert Alexie's Porcupines And China Dolls and James Bartleman's As Long As The Rivers Flow, and Kevin Loring's Governor General's Award-winning play Where The Blood Mixes all take a kick at the can.
Just a few weeks ago my own play about residential schools, God And The Indian, was published, and in the next month or so, Up Ghost River, by Ed Metatawabin will be released.
But this is all just the tip of the teepee.
For a decade now I've been on the jury for Historica Canada's annual contest for young native writers, Aboriginal Art & Stories. Every year a sizable percentage of the stories deal with the residential school years, even though most of these kids were born long after those bastions of forced Canadianization were abolished.
It's important to note that not every native person went to one of these institutions, but we were all hit with the collateral damage in one form or another.
In the States, I once heard a representative from an organization set up to develop film scripts for native Americans ask about their Canadian counterparts, "Don't they have anything else to write about?"
We have residential schools on the brain.
With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelling the country doing its thing, more Canadians should also have residential schools on the brain.
But I'm hearing or reading, more frequently than I am comfortable with, mainstream Canadians telling native people to "get over it," "move on" and "quit living in the past."
You can't help wondering what would happen if these same people went to ground zero in New York and yelled out to the passing public, "Geez, can't you just move on?!" Or, going to any Holocaust museum and asking anybody handy, "You guys still whining about this?" Same could we be said about African heritage. That slave thing was so 19th-century, wasn't it?
I remember a letter I once received from a man who seemed genuinely puzzled that in all our bitching, natives were overlooking all the obvious educational benefits we received - between the beatings and sexual assaults - from our time in residential schools.
This may actually be true, for I cannot tell you how invaluable it was on the pow wow trail to know that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.
Residential schools did teach native people to write and understand the concept of putting thoughts and memories down on paper.
But it's the fight to save native culture that's helped spawn a strong and vibrant literary movement.
Like a scar that's harder than the tissue around it, these stories of residential school experiences are part of the discussions of moving on.