Going to Thunderchild Residential School

IndigiNews is publishing stories from Alphonse Little Poplar, recorded and transcribed in 1986, to share his incredible memories and gentle storytelling.

Content Warning: This article contains content about residential “schools” which may be triggering. Please read with care. 

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.

“All us kids had to go to school. We were sent to the Thunderchild Residential School. If your parents didn’t take you, the police would come and get you. For us guys from Sweet Grass it wasn’t too bad as we got to see our families, as it wasn’t too far for them to come and see us. For others it was a different story. I went with my cousin Ben; we were sort of like brothers.”

I never heard of a school principal there, only a Sister Superior. There was one very old priest, Father Lagoff. We used to like to watch him put snuff in his nose to make him sneeze. That guy worked amongst Indians all his life, over sixty years. Old priests didn’t retire; he was in the town of Delmas as a very old man.

There was one Indian priest, he was a Chipewyan, but he talked Cree. He was from up North. He used to show us pictures of their camp — mostly tents, but a couple of teepees — around a lake. That was where they camped in the summer. In the winter they would go in the bushes. He had a lot of interesting stories. He was the only Indian priest I ever heard of. There was one guy here at the Big House, the old Territorial Capital, south of Battleford. He was a Brother. He had gone in to be a priest, but they fail too sometimes. So, to make him a Brother was the best they could do.

Father Allard, he used to be some kind of boss. He looked mean, eh, but he was a good father. He used to take us boys on trips to the other side of Paynton, and further North. He would get some of us bigger boys picking roots. They used to pay in tobacco. When I was nine years old I started smoking. That Father used to have a 2-wheel trailer. He would take us for rides in it. You could hook It behind his bumper. There was a lug sticking out and you just dropped a pin into it. It had no nut. We never thought anything about it.

We used to ride in it and it went like hell too. We used to tell him, “Faster, Father, faster.” When school was out everybody went home. That summer there was about thirteen [of us children] that was stuck there. Their parents or guardians didn’t come and pick them up. Father Allard was to take them to Meadow Lake. The Father was taking a turn by Meadow Lake, and he slipped. As he slipped the pin came off and all them kids landed in the ditch. Lucky thing nobody got killed. I don’t think anybody got hurt too much.

A young nehiyaw man, Alphonse Little Poplar, stands in front of a wooden building on the prairie.
Alphonse Little Poplar. Photograph submitted by Audrey Fineday.

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