A lake with a green peninsula and an island in Nadleh

Recovered Not Discovered: Indigenous Stories and Truth Telling

Cheryl BearBlog

Content note: This post contains stories about Indian Residential Schools

Cheryl Bear

Nadleh Whut’en (I am from Nadleh)
Dum’tenoo (Bear clan)

Hadih (hello) beloved friends and family, 

I’m writing to you from Prince George, BC, in May of 2024. There have been a lot of significant deaths in my life since I first shared my story as part of The Sanctuary Course, including my dear dad (fourteen months ago), my best friend of over twenty-five years (eighteen months ago), a beloved cousin/niece (seven months ago), and most recently my older brother, who passed away in February 2024. His untimely death is hitting me very hard; he was only fifty-eight (another sad reminder that Indigenous people currently have at least a ten-year shorter life expectancy than the average Canadian). Our siblings influence our lives and shape us in many ways, and I am constantly reminded of my brother at every turn. Plus, I have lost many mentors and Elders, most of whom walked alongside me over the last thirty years. 

In the session five film of The Sanctuary Course, I talked about my struggles with depression and anxiety. It was not an easy share. As I said to my doctor when I was diagnosed with anxiety in 2011, “I cannot have anxiety, I’m a pastor! In the Bible Jesus literally says, ‘Be anxious for nothing.’ Can I please have a heart problem?” Fortunately, we have come a long way from those days. The stigma surrounding mental health challenges is considerably lower, thanks in large part to the willingness of individuals to share their stories. I know firsthand the power of stories to undo isolation and decrease stigma. I have listened to hundreds of Indian Residential School Survivors share their story (our way of saying testimony) in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) across Canada. We all live with complex trauma and compound grief.

I’m grateful to now be able to share some stories that will hopefully enlighten non-Indigenous people to some of the realities of Indigenous life and inspire change for all our futures. 

Alongside the significant deaths I’ve experienced personally, I have been deeply impacted by the search for unmarked graves on Indian Residential School (IRS) grounds. (Most Indigenous people prefer to call them jails instead of schools.) These searches and recoveries have been impossibly tough for all Indigenous people. We Indigenous were never surprised by these recoveries but we were all traumatized. I learned of a few Indigenous Elders who went to the hospital emergency room because of heart pain, which was likely related to their mental health.

Please note that I did not use the word discoveries. The unmarked graves were not randomly discovered. We knew. Our Elders have told stories since they were children about the unmarked graves and the children missing from their beds at IRS. Many witnessed the actual deaths of children who were never buried in any graveyard (whether at home or at the IRS), and there are even stories of IRS students who were forced to carry the wrapped body of a child to a grave or witness the worst possible, a baby (thought to be the illegitimate child of a priest) being thrown into a roaring furnace. These stories are documented by the TRC. 

Our Elders (Indian Residential School Survivors, IRSS) told their truths. It is impossible for most Canadians to understand the depth of trauma the Indian Residential School students suffered, and the generations after. I have told this next story to some of my dearest Indigenous friends who were survivors who I trusted.  

“There was a little girl no more than five or six years old. She was struggling to make her bed. Not only were the fitted sheets virtually unmanageable, but  the top sheet was  so much bigger than she was. At the end of the bed stood a frightening adult figure; arms crossed, a spoon in hand. The little girl finally got the top sheet straight and managed to tuck the bottom of the sheet under the mattress just like a hotel room, as she was taught. She didn’t stop until she was done but often cast fearful glances at the figure at the end of her bed.” 

When I told my Indigenous IRSS friends this story they said, “That’s what happened to me in Residential School.” This was before the TRC. I was not surprised at their words but was deeply troubled because this was my story. I was that little girl, but I had never gone to an IRS. My mom did. That was what she was taught in those “schools.” This was the only way she knew to teach a child how to make a bed. The abuse to us is obvious in this story (which happened at any bed-making mistake). However, it was not considered abuse to my late, beautiful mother. Abuse in the IRS was normalized so it was just another average day. 

I’ve heard some backlash related to these searches and recoveries. There were good-hearted, well-meaning Canadian folks who said, “There were a lot of children who died in those days, it was normal! Why is this different from the average non-Indigenous experience?” 

Certainly, there were a lot of children who died of disease or natural causes, and we all mourn those children; but we Indigenous did not have the same experience as non-Indigenous folks.  

Every Residential School had an area, known by Indigenous children, where there were unmarked graves. The word unmarked is significant. Please use this statement when referring to the news reports of grave recoveries at IRS’s: “… recovered unmarked graves.” Every Residential School also had marked graves in fenced graveyards—and it should go without saying that no school should ever have a graveyard. 

The church denominations that oversaw the day-to-day operations of the schools had (and still have) very strict rules about burial. Indeed, there are very Canadian old laws that dictate humane ways of internment. A burial ground commonly has a fence around it and every grave is also marked with a headstone or a cross. 

Every human knows what it means when an unmarked grave is recovered. It means something is off; it’s not right; something horrible and illegal happened, and whoever buried these bodies had something to hide. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gatherings, I listened as many Indigenous Elders talked about their missing classmates. When they went missing from the schools, everyone assumed they ran away—or that was the story that was spread about them. But many of the students never made it home and oddly (traumatically) remain missing to this day. As I said earlier, there were testimonies from IRS students at the TRC about the horrible deaths they witnessed. 

Many communities enjoy “You know you’re XYZ if…” jokes and memes on social media. We used to have “You know you’re Indigenous if…” comments. Many of us shared funny comments like, “You know you’re Indigenous if…you have a blanket for a curtain; you use a wire hanger and stove element to make toast; you use a butter knife to lock your bedroom door…” There are many Indigenous communities where these things are still a reality—though most of us have toasters. However, we still all enjoy a good Native joke. But someone made a comment that shut us all down because of the screaming truth in the statement: 

“You know you’re Indigenous…if you go missing and the government and police don’t look for you.”

No More Stolen Sisters.” There is the Red Dress Campaign as well as the MMIWG Commission Final Report, which is chilling.

I was sheltered from the missing and murdered (women/girls/men/IRSS children/cousins) because the IRS, police, government, and Canadian society basically told us not to ask questions or tell our stories, because nobody will listen and nobody cares. Which was true. Until the survivors of the IRS won the largest class action suit against Canada. 

My non-Indigenous Papa asked me once, “Cheryl, have you heard about Cheslatta?” I said no. He sighed and said, “I’m not sure I want to tell you because you will get very angry.” 

He then told me about the Alcan project, how they changed the course of many rivers, including the Nadleh River. Our river formerly flowed into Fraser Lake but now flows out of it, and they added rapids to slow the river. My Mom remembers watching the workers do this as a four- or five-year-old girl, because they lived on the south side of the river. My Auntie remembers walking across the river, likely over a series of weirs they set for salmon. We are still facing the cumulative effects from decades of change to our ecosystem without our consent. 

So many things stolen, so many children hidden and silenced. So many injustices. 

How then shall we live? How do we continue when so many of our people live fewer years than Euro-Canadians? How do we live with daily reminders of colonization, racism, and injustice? 

I will continue to tell these stories to show not only resilience (which has become a dirty word among us Indigenous, because we are far more than resilient) but also the overcoming and healing in and amongst our communities. 

There are many who will say that we need to be taken from our land to heal. That it will only happen if we are away from the trauma. But this is not the way of healing for Indigenous or anyone, especially for Indigenous people. We are the land and the land is us. Anyone who is trying to get us “away” is promoting the colonizers’ dream of taking away the land or taking us away from our land. One of my late best friends often talked about land-based trauma healing. This means we do not need to be taken from our communities to experience healing.The land and stories of the land will provide that healing in a magnificent way.

I have seen my Elders walk through trauma… years and years of trauma. They get through by giving constantly to their community and our very large families. They get through by never giving up because they see a newborn baby, and they have hope for the future. I cling to their faith, to their hope, and their love. Our Elders hold prophecies from our people to always give, to learn from and depend on the land, and to always look to Creator through it all. They have refused to be silent, and now their stories are beginning to be heard. I cling to this with all my heart. 

Cheryl Bear headshot

Cheryl Bear is well known as an important and respected voice in Indigenous communities, a speaker and teacher who has traveled to over 600 Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States sharing her songs and stories. She also visits non-Native communities, holding workshops to raise awareness and understanding of Indigenous issues. Cheryl is a multi-award winning singer-songwriter who shares stories of Indigenous life through story and song. She is a founding board member of NAIITS, an Indigenous learning community, and an Associate Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. Cheryl has an earned Doctorate from The King’s University in Los Angeles and Master of Divinity degree from Regent College. Her doctoral work presents an approach to First Nations ministry from the foundations of Indigenous worldview and values. Cheryl served as a band councillor for her community of Nadleh Whut’en First Nation from 2014-2018.