Trigger Warning: This story contains disturbing content about child labour, child death, and child abuse at so-called residential “schools.” Please read with care for your spirit and well-being.
In 1986, Alphonse Little Poplar and Irene Fineday welcomed a family friend named David Doyle to their family land on the Sweetgrass First Nation. Mr. Doyle spent three months staying in a small building next to their home, over the winter. He spent his evenings interviewing Alphonse, recording these interviews on a cassette recorder. After leaving the reserve, Mr. Doyle had their contents transcribed. Unfortunately, over time all of the cassettes save for one were accidentally destroyed.
In June of 2020, Mr. Doyle gifted Eden Fineday, IndigiNews’ Business Aunty, and Alphonse and Irene’s granddaughter, with ownership and possession of the manuscript containing all of her grandfather’s transcribed stories. IndigiNews is publishing these stories so that Alphonse’s incredible memories and gentle storytelling may be shared with our readers.
Portions of this manuscript have previously been published in the Battlefords News Optimist.
There was another one, Paul Spyglass. He died. They tied his foot to a chain on a wheelbarrow. He was hauling dirt back and forth from the garden to some flowers they had around the school. He was sweating. A Sister came out there and told him that he must not stop, that he was to continue moving. He hit that nun. He gave her two black eyes. After that, the Priest came and unlocked that chain and told him to go. He went home and died. He was sick already, he had tuberculosis. He was kind of a thin boy and it used to be that he didn’t have an appetite. That was a very nice boy. When he first came to school he didn’t know a word of Cree, just Stoney (Assiniboine).
But he learned a few words, and after a while he was able to speak Cree. We only spoke Cree when the nuns weren’t around.
How that started was apparently there was a feud between Paul Spyglass and a boy named Earnest who we called “Skunk.” Earnest came to what they called the Summer House. It was a round building just outside the kitchen. They called it the Summer House, but in there was where they stored things. It was nice and cool in there. They would buy meat in big chunks, a quarter at a time then they would put meat in there.
Earnest was sent there to cut meat. After a while an argument broke out between Earnest and Paul. They had a fight outside the Summer House. They wrestled for a while and then they started boxing. Earnest kept going closer and closer to the school. Apparently, he had a plan.
There is a set of stairs leading to a door that goes in the basement. This fella, Skunk, his idea was to knock Paul down there. You can see how he got the name Skunk.
Skunk kept backing up, hoping that Paul doesn’t know what is behind him. He was going to knock Paul down there, but just then, this nun came. Sister Mary came from the porch right beside the basement stairs. She walked right into that fight. She just came there and right away that guy Skunk smacked her one on the mouth. She was big and tough, but she had a big swollen mouth. It was blue. She went down the stairs. Instead of Paul Spyglass like Earnest figured, he’d hit a nun. Those guys took off.
I used to work in the kitchen. I supplied wood there and carried out the ashes. I’d been watching the whole thing. So, I went down there to see, maybe I can help her, even though I’m kind of scared of her.
She was lying there but saw me. She asked me to help her get up.
I took her hand, she sat up, got to her feet and said, “Who was that that hit me—Skunk?”
I didn’t say, just hung my head, but she knew. I went back to work. She went away.
After that the nuns called the children to what we called the recreation hall. We were sitting down there and Sister Mary said, “See this here, these blue marks” pointing to her face, “I’ve got some teeth loose and you all know who did this. He’s in the ball and chain now.”
She talked there for quite a while but I didn’t understand half of what she said. They put that guy Skunk on the wheelbarrow and then Paul Spyglass. Somebody was watching all the time to see that they don’t stop. It was like hard labour. Finally, a Priest caught them and put a stop to it.
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).