Content Warning: This article contains content about residential “schools,” including the abuses that took place within the institutions, please read with great care and prioritize your wellness and spirit.
During a public event at Vancouver Public Library, nehiyaw women Eden Fineday and Elder Dorothy Visser had a conversation about life before and after residential “school,” resilience, and the vital task of passing on the truth and beauty of traditions to future generations.
Eden is VPL’s current Indigenous storyteller-in-residence and also Business Aunty at IndigiNews. Dorothy has been teaching nēhiyawēwin and Cree culture in Metro Vancouver since moving to the area in 1981.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. A full recording of the event on April 19 can be viewed here.
Eden Fineday: Dorothy Visser is a nehiyaw Elder from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Treaty Six territory. A survivor of residential “school,” she remembers a time living in her home community being raised by multiple generations of her family. As an adult, Elder Dorothy married and had seven children, and now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Elder Dorothy is my Cree teacher, and a trusted friend and mentor. I’m honoured to have her here with us tonight. Thank you for being here, Dorothy.
Dorothy Visser: Hiy hiy, thank you.
Eden: I thought we could just start with you telling us a little bit about your early life.
Dorothy: I’ll start with my great grandparents. I was really fortunate to have known my great grandparents Alexander Wepehmais Asham Cardinal, who married Eliza Desjarlais, a Métis lady. And her father was Frederick Kekhawk Desjarlais; he was a great buffalo hunter. He had been known to ride one buffalo to kill another, I have the history books to confirm that. My genealogy on [my mother’s side] dates back to 1600, of which I have all the records. And my First Nation’s genealogy from my dad’s side is to 1800. My great, great, great-grandfather Kweyeskis, which means Turner, and so I have all those records, and I’m quite fortunate to have that knowledge. My great grandparents chose to live on the reserve because they wanted to follow their Indigenous culture. At that time, it was determined that the Métis who lived with the settlers were to be considered white. And the Métis that lived with First Nation communities on treaty territories and have treaty status were considered to be ‘Indians.’ So that’s part of the history and that caused a lot of pain with the Métis that lived with the settlers, because there was a lot hidden, you know, about their heritage.
Eden: They had to hide who they were.
Dorothy: Yeah, that’s right. But anyway, I was really fortunate as a child, because I knew both sets of my grandparents and all their siblings and cousins were also mōsoms and kokums (grandparents) to us children. There was a lot of connections, a lot of love and a lot of teaching we received. We learned to be independent as children, [with] very loving families. My parents were very hard workers, they were chosen for each other, because they came from good families, and are both hard workers. My great grandfather would not allow any of his daughters or granddaughters to marry into the white society, because he felt they would be looked down upon and discriminated upon.
Eden: By both groups, potentially, hey?
Dorothy: Yes. So that’s part of the history of my childhood. And my mother, she used to take us to the woods to learn how to snare rabbits — and this all before a residential “school” — and how to snare prairie chickens. Then my sister and I were allowed to go on our own to bring the rabbits home. And I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They had a big farm, so I would learn to do all the farm work: the cream separator, milking cows, and churning butter and all that sort of stuff. My grandmother helped me grow my own garden, or a section of her garden to have my own for my family. That’s how my grandmother was. I didn’t realise at that time, but she was training me how to work. And this is what helped me recover from the residential “school”. And I want to always stress on how important it is to raise a child while they’re still small, because they never forget the love and the upbringing they had, and teaching them how to do things. They never forget that, and that will help them in their growing up years.
Before I went to residential “school”, my family – especially my great-grandparents and grandparents – followed their culture and ceremonies. And that’s why they wanted to live on the reserve: to follow their First Nations traditions. But my grandparents also went to church every Sunday. So I grew up with both: learning to believe in God and Jesus, but also, my grandmother always had a Sweat Lodge in her yard, because she was a Medicine Woman. She was also a midwife who delivered many, many babies. And powwow dancing: I saw my great-grandfather and grandfathers dance in their regalia as a little child, and I never forgot that. I thought that was so beautiful, even though it was outlawed at the time. They practised in the privacy of their home. My great-grandmother was also a Sun Dancer. And I remember seeing these women, they would stay in the Sun Dance Lodge for four days. And they would sit behind this wall that was made out of trees and willows – the arbour. They would sometimes get up and dance and they all had red rosy cheeks, you know, the medicine that they put on their cheeks, I remember that so clearly. And then they bounced up and down when they danced, I remember that very clearly.
Residential “school” was very difficult. We had a lot of knuckle slaps, you know, with the rulers. I was in what they call ‘The Baby Class.’ Before you started Grade 1, it’s like Kindergarten. There was a boy that used to poke my behind, and I wanted to tell them about it. So I told this nun that Johnny was being very bad. And she asked, ‘How is he being bad?’ and I was too embarrassed to tell her what he was doing. I said, ‘He’s being very bad, Sister.’ That nun slapped me straight across the face real hard and told me to go sit down. So this boy poked my butt for the rest of the time. And anyway, I thought to myself as a wee child that when I grew up, I was going to come back to that “school” and beat the hell out of that nun.
Eden and Dorothy share laughter together.
Dorothy: It’s humour. You know, I suffered. Now, you can laugh about it, right? That’s healing. Whenever I had something bad happen in “school,” I would think to myself as a little child, ‘I can live through this. I can live through this, because one year from now, it will be in the past, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.’
But I tried to focus on the good that I saw, and I think it’s because of the way I was brought up as a child. If the nun didn’t like you, you got punished worse, and more. But we had some that were good, like the Sister in the infirmary that looked after us when we were sick. She’d give us little candies, but she would say ‘Don’t tell Sister.’ There was also a Brother that was the baker, and we’d sneak in to see him and he’d sneak us little hot buns or little slices of bread. And he’d shoo us out of there so we wouldn’t get caught. You know, there was some kindness there too. Also the bad stuff: the kids who ran away from “school” were dragged back, and they would shave them bald, and punish them and embarrass them in front of all the other children. Strappings – they lay you down on the bed and with thick belts, thick leather straps, they would beat you on the back. Those are some of the bad things that happened. You were punished in different ways.
But through it all, I still prayed and I went to church. And I saw a movie of Jesus at one time, and saw how much he suffered. I went to bed and just cried all night long, because I was so moved by how much Jesus suffered.
I started wearing glasses when I was a child, and I didn’t like wearing glasses. So every time the nun caught me not wearing my glasses, she’d punish me by sending me to bed when there was a movie. But I could hear from upstairs through the vents, hey. And I’d go to that vent and listen to the cowboys and Indians.
And we loved to play cowboys and Indians. And of course, we didn’t want to be the Indians because they were the bad guys. That’s how the movies were, eh? My grandfather used to laugh at those movies. My dad’s father. He said, ‘You know, there’s not a bit of truth to those movies. If an Indian was to attack,’ he says, ‘You never heard it.”’
But I would like to talk about 1956, which was my last year of “school.” And I had been in hospital for two years prior to that. I had done my schooling through correspondence to Grade 8, and I graduated with that. The priest at the time, he would not allow me to go to Grade 9. I wanted to go to Grade 9, but he didn’t think it was good enough because it was by correspondence. However, that priest was the priest to change that “school” around.
Eden: Yes! You were telling me that there was a priest that made a big impact on the “school.” Tell us about him.
Dorothy: What happened was, he was a priest from France. And this nun saw this young girl, her name was Hazel, and I’m sure if Hazel is alive, she remembers this very well. She had fallen on her knees and both her knees were really scraped, they were bleeding, and she had big holes in her stockings right around her kneecaps. And when the nun saw that, she just started to slap her back and forth real hard, and slapped her right down onto a chair. The priest just happened to walk by, in the dining area we were in. He happened to walk in there, and he said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And the nun said, ‘Well look at her,’ and the priest asked, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ The nun said ‘But look at her – look at her stockings.’ The priest asked ‘And you’re hitting her for that?’ Oh, he was mad. He said, ‘I don’t ever want another child of mine to ever be hit in the “school” ever again.’ Then he started to rant and he said, ‘Another thing, I don’t see why these children have to wear the same old clothes every day of their lives when the government has all the money in the world for these children.’ That priest ordered brand new clothing for the children. And he used to come to our classrooms every month to read the report cards. He would encourage the children to do better in what they lacked, to try and do better with the next report. He was the first priest that started sending the children to high “school.” Prior to that, you were sent back home to the reserve. When you were 16 years old, and if you are finished Grade 8, you were sent back to the reserve. That’s why the poverty is there, you know, because it was being sent back to a life that was depleting. There’s no more rabbits, there’s no more game. The reserves got poorer and poorer because of that.
Eden: And everybody was in pain, they’ve suffered terrible trauma. And there was no healing yet. That wouldn’t come for a couple of generations.
Dorothy: That’s right. But this priest started sending the children to high school, and encouraged them to go on to further their education – to college and to universities. Some of the high school children joined the Armed Forces.
And that residential”school” is Blue Quills Indian Residential School of St. Paul, Alberta. The First Nations people from Saddle Lake took over that “school” after it shut down. It was a healing centre for a while, and then it became a high school, and then a college and it’s now a university. They teach the Cree syllabics, the Cree language there as well. So that’s one thing that I wanted to mention: how important the language and the culture is to our people.
Eden: Can we talk about how you were raised in the language – it was your first language, and everyone around you was raising you to speak it – and you managed to retain it throughout residential “school?”
Dorothy: Yes, I did. I didn’t speak a word of English before I went to “school.” You know, I didn’t understand any English. I had to learn it. When I was 14 years old, in a hospital, I had a syllabic sheet and I started to write to my grandfather. Then he would answer me, and I would write him back. When I came out of the hospital in Edmonton, after a year and a half, I asked him if he understood what I had written. He said, ‘Yes, I understand your Cree. However, it looks like Chinese writing.’
When I was 16, and I came out of that “school” I ran away from home. Because I didn’t want to go back to the school, because I didn’t want to repeat Grade 8. But I saw the drinking that was going on, and it really saddened me. My parents had started drinking, although they still provided, they were still hard workers. My dad still went to work everyday to work on a farm with my uncles – all the men used to help each other with the farming. There were really good cultural connections with families and community when I was a child. I remember it was really with that community that made them. But when the alcohol started happening, I didn’t like to see what it was doing. So I left home for that reason, because I wanted to have a better life for myself. I ran away from home one day, because I knew my parents wouldn’t allow me to, at only 16 years old. From home I snuck off and hitchhiked to Edmonton. I was very fortunate that I had people who were safe. I contacted my former teacher there, and she got me a job the very next day. Within a year, I was taking a practical nursing training course. I wasn’t old enough yet, and I didn’t quite have the education that was required. But they took me on a three-month trial basis. I told myself I was going to graduate – and I did.
Eden: That is incredible.
Dorothy: That’s where my life began. I stayed away from drinking and just kept to myself. I made $12 a week. It paid for room and board, and to buy myself one piece of clothing every week. Or to treat myself to a movie. I was actually quite smart as a 16 year old.
Eden: Yes. With a Grade 8 education you managed to complete the nursing program, and support yourself at 16 years old.
Dorothy: But after I got married, I took up reading courses, and I read a lot. My dad was very instrumental in my upbringing, because whenever I had any issues, I talked to my dad. He gave me a lot of common sense answers. That’s how I did things: trying to use common sense. I think things over before I do anything. And that’s a good way to plan out things.
Eden: Dorothy, you teach all sorts of Cree classes now. You are a very busy woman at 83 years old. How many classes are you teaching?
Dorothy: We shut one down because there is no more funding here. But I’m teaching one night with the Pacific Association of First Nations Women (PAFNW) and one with the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association (FRAFCA). We started with a program with Nēhiyaw Netotemak and Dawn Johnson. There was no money coming in, but we did it on our own, because we were trying to connect with our Cree culture. That’s how that began. Then Joanna Mills offered us a room for FRAFCA to do our language lessons. Then she offered me a small honorarium. And that’s how FRAFCA nēhiyawēwin grew.
My son and I, we go to preschools and we do the powwow dancing, storytelling, showing cultural items and talking to children. We sing in Cree.
Eden: It makes me so happy to hear that you are spending time with these little children. Is it correct that you identify as both Cree and Métis?
Dorothy: I was actually born on the Saddle Lake Cree First Nation, it’s Treaty Six territory. But I have French and English heritage – my dad’s grandmother was part English – but we were considered Treaty Indians because we were Treaty. When I married my husband I lost my status. So I was no longer an Indian.
My uncle, he wanted to run for the Métis as president, and he says ‘Come out and vote for me.’ And I said I’m not Métis, and he says ‘Well you’re not Indian, either, what are you?’ I said ‘I’m an ex-Indian.’
Eden: And then you got your status back in 1985?
Dorothy: Yeah, with Bill C-31.
Eden: The reason I brought up being Métis was, I was wondering: do you work with Métis children in some capacity?
Dorothy: I started a parenting program called Four Eagles Society, because I wanted to do something with parents who got their children back from care. We have weekly meetings and we do all sorts of crafts and things to raise money for the children and take them for outings, and things like that, you know, connecting the families, and creating a little community. That’s what we’re doing here with FRAFCA: we have a little community here. It’s a lot of fun.
Eden: Oh yeah! It’s like a raging party. We got the fiddle music going and the kokums are jigging. Everyone’s playing the spoons. It is so much fun.
Dorothy: We learn to introduce ourselves: We acknowledge the territory in our language, and we introduce ourselves in our own language, and we converse in our language. We sing songs in our language, which is really good. And we have our little star, kiskinwahamᾱkēw there, that plays the banjo. He plays Brian MacDonald songs, which are so much fun, and he can rattle off ‘Hippopotamus’ real fast.
I’m really happy with the interest that students have with the Cree languages, at both the PAFNW and FRAFCA, because when they’re really interested, they’ll keep coming back and that’s how they’re going to learn.
Eden: Yes. I feel like you create so much healing. There are so many people who have felt misplaced or displaced, and disconnected, including myself: I’ve got family on the rez, but living out here I feel so lonely and I miss my culture, but I found a wonderful group of people through you and your Cree class. You talk a lot about healing, and I feel like that’s what you brought into my life. I’m so grateful for that. And I feel like that is the gift that you give every week: you’re going to work with these children, and you’re teaching Cree classes. You just keep giving, and I feel like you’re creating healing.
Dorothy: That’s part of our culture, you know, with the medicine teachings, and that’s how we were brought up. The most important aspect that we were taught is to respect your Elders. Not only Elders, but each other. Back in the day, the respect was so profound that young couples didn’t dare say anything off-colour in front of the Elders, that’s how much respect there was. Even us as children, because a lot of us just had one room homes, some of the brothers had to sleep on the floor. You had to walk around them, you couldn’t step over them. Womanhood, being a woman, is also taught to be respectful of yourself as a woman.
Eden: Yes. Honouring yourself, and the power that’s given to you.
Dorothy: Yes, there are so many good teachings with the First Nations’ culture and communities. It’s better to look on the good side rather than the bad. You know, with all the things, all the horror that’s happened — it’s good to tell the history of how much our people have suffered through the government and the “schools” and the foster “care,” but there needs to be healing. We need to move beyond that. I know, there’s a lot of suffering still, and there’s a lot of anger still, but we need to heal. And once we have, we can learn to love and we can learn to forgive.
Eden: Yes. I found that the closer I get to my culture, the more of my language that I learn, the more I spend time with my dad learning about plant medicines and hearing sacred stories — when I do those things, I’m healing, I feel better. My rage dissipates. I feel like the more we’re cut off from ourselves and our culture, that’s where the pain and the anger comes from. I’ve been reading through my grandfather’s memoirs, where he talks about residential “school” and his memories from “school.” They’re so gently shared, and there’s so much humour, and kindness — just the way he talks about it.
I found those of us who were cut off from our Elders for a time, we didn’t get that teaching of how to be gentle, how to be accepting, how to forgive. How to do what you said: how to tell ourselves ‘Well, in a year, this will be the past.’ You had the mental fortitude to survive residential “school,” and you’re still alive at age 83. I think in a large part, because of that attitude of looking for the good. Not to downplay the horrors, like you said, but I have found that the people who are most connected to their communities, they’re better at forgiving. And those of us who have been cut off and who have been raised away from their communities, I sometimes find a lot of rage. Although I understand it, I realize – now that I’m back in the bosom of my family and my community – it’s been a very profound teaching, to learn how to let go of that negativity, rather than perpetuating it with my angry thoughts.
Dorothy: It’s all connected with the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. How to gain balance through understanding who you are as an individual and growing with that. We cannot take another person for granted, every person is a human being, and every individual is special. Sometimes we don’t get along with people, but we can work things out. It’s the same with couples: you need to be able to trust each other if you’re gonna have a good relationship, and be able to converse, talk things over if there’s issues and come to a solution. It will work better.
There’s still so much horror going on in this world. Every day, you hear about all these horrible things that are going on. I think part of the reason is that a lot of people have forgotten how to pray. People don’t pray anymore. You know, there is someone greater than us that we need to call upon to help us. Someone who created us. We call him our father, mᾱmawi-ohtāwīmāw, Great Spirit. He has different names: Father, Great Spirit, God.
Eden: My dad also prays to the Grandmother and Grandfather Spirits.
Dorothy: Yes, my dad always told me that he needs to pray for them to help. You know, it’s basically what we refer to as saints.
Eden: Yeah, exactly. It’s similar to a saint in Catholicism or maybe a bodhisattva in Buddhism.
Dorothy: Because they’ve lived a good life and they’re in a sacred place, right. They’re back with their Creator.
Eden: So they can be like an interloper that can help you between worlds.
Dorothy: They can speak for us, and pray for us too. I believe that. There is lots to learn about our culture. It’s connected to everything. We call her the Earth Mother because of all the sacred teachings that come from her; of the Earth, of the Sky, the teachings of the Medicine Wheel.
Eden: And she provides us everything we could possibly need — food, shelter, clothing — it’s all been provided for us. Could you share a little bit of your teachings that you’ve learned from your Elders on Saddle Lake Cree Nation, or a little bit of the language?
Dorothy: There are still a lot of words that I need to rely on my dictionary for. Because I am getting to that age now where I do have these senior moments, I call them. And, you know, I want to talk about our Elders who went to see the Pope about reconciliation. I always thought that if reconciliation is to come about, it’s the First Nations people who will do that. I think that was the first step: our Elders going to the Pope to seek that apology that was so required. A lot of people have mixed feelings about that, but I think anybody who tries to do something good for the people is a good thing. That’s the first step.
Eden: I would say that I was one of those people who had mixed feelings about it. And then I read that article and just reading the Pope’s words, hearing him say he was ashamed. Honestly, I was shocked at how that effect that it had on me. I didn’t know I needed or wanted to hear that until I heard that. efore that moment, I was like, ‘That guy should be coming to us and begging for forgiveness.’ I was one of those people, and then when those words touched me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’ A woman I work with has an Elder in her community, who, a few years back when maybe it was a politician apologized, the next day he woke up and he could speak his language for the first time in decades. The apology had triggered something within his spirit, and he woke up being able to speak his language the next day. That was an Elder that she knew personally from her community, and it just made me think, you know, apologies are powerful.
Dorothy: It’s a peace offering. You know? You apologize and it’s an offering of peace. It’s a peaceful connection. We can’t forget a lot of the work that’s happened, but we can look beyond that. Particularly because, in spite of all the horror that’s gone on, we move on and try to prevent those things from happening somewhere else in one form or another. We can’t stay angry for something forever for something that’s already happened. We can be angry, but we can’t be angry to the point where we destroy ourselves in our anger.
Eden: Exactly. Yeah, that’s what it does, and I think that’s why some of us drink. That anger is just so overwhelming, and then we want to escape from our mind and our pain. It’s hard. It’s hard to heal. It’s taken me like 40-something years. Thank you so much for sharing these teachings with us, Dorothy.
Dorothy: Yeah, it’s a tough life sometimes, and I know a lot of people are going through a lot, with all the things you hear worldwide, all the horrible things that are still happening. There always has been good and bad everywhere but it’s how we deal with it that’s gonna make a difference. We need to heal.
Eden: Yes. I feel like we’re at a strange crossroads right now. The world is at this tipping point where we’ve been doing so much damage, and we’re continuing, too. I feel like the teachings that you’ve shared with me, the ones that you told me your Saddle Lake Elders taught you, all of these really wise words have really helped me. I feel like this is the medicine that the world needs. Our culture contains the medicine that the world needs to heal. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring you in and share your wisdom with everybody. I believe that this conversation is healing. I hope that we’re sending that healing out into the world. That is my personal prayer.
Dorothy: And no one is better than anyone else. We’re all human beings. We’re all in this together. We’re here to help one another. Not to fight against each other. I’m thankful that you asked me to come and speak to you. I hope our talk has been helpful to someone. It’s always good to talk about a good that you’ve seen, you know, because that’s what we live on. I honour my family, my grandparents, what they’ve taught me, my great grandparents with all that credit for today. And to everyone who was listening, thank you.
Dear cuzzins, if you or anyone you know is struggling with a visit with depression, suicidal ideation or attempts we want you to know help is available at KUU-US Crisis Line Society.
Adults/Elders (250-723-4050), Child/Youth (250-723-2040), Toll free (1-800-588-8717), or the Métis Line (1-833-MétisBC).
Never forget your sacredness.