For any parent, the idea of having a child removed from you without your consent is the stuff of nightmares. But for many Indigenous families, that nightmare became a reality in communities across Canada. "The Sixties Scoop" refers to the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their families by the Canadian Children’s Aid Society, almost always without the consent of their families. Despite the term, the practice continued even past the 1960s into the 1980s, and Indigenous children are still over-represented, even today, in child welfare system.
As conversations about reconciliation and the honest presentation of Canadian history continue to evolve, many survivors are bravely stepping forward to share their stories about the impact of this state-sanctioned horror.
In Silence to Strength: Writings and Reflections on the Sixties Scoop (Kegedonce Press), editor Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith collects seventeen powerful voices, all survivors of the Sixties Scoop. Each writer shares their experience, including the complexity of finding ways to reconnect, as adults, with cultures, families, communities, and languages that were taken from them as children.
Searing, raw, and honest, each essay reveals essential truths about what was done and the rippling effects of these abductions. The collection features pieces from Anna Croxen, Vonda Knipfel, Shaun LaDue, Alice McKay, Denise Mcleod, Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, David Mortimer, Arlene Noskye, Karen Orser, Doreen Parenteau, Shane Pement, Tyler Pennock, Cathy Phannenhour, Elizabeth Redsky, Terry Swan, Melissa Thomas (Sigvaldason), and Lisa Wilder.
We're proud to share an excerpt here today: a portion of the moving and impactful essay by Terry Swan, "She Embodies Grace", courtesy of Kegedonce Press. This excerpt appears as part of our November spotlight on excerpts, where we invite readers to get a glimpse of some of the most exciting, urgent, and powerful Canadian writing being published right now.
Excerpt from Silence to Strength: Writings and Reflections on the Sixties Scoop
from She Embodies Grace by Terry Swan
I am flying high above a lake shaped like a five-pointed star, Achakos (1). From high above, I see wall tents with stovepipes sticking out of the canvas and further back in the bush are four teepees set up in a circle. I smell the wood smoke coming out of the dwellings.
I love that in dreamtime your senses can be activated, and you experience them as vividly as in waking life.
I see children scurrying around playing and laughing. I see women and caribou hides strewn over poles with dried meat hanging. I smell the loveliness of a rabbit stew cooking as it wafts up to that faculty through the ethers.
I now see a plane land in that tiny cove. I experience uneasiness and one of the four winds blows swiftly and knocks me slightly back, a pang felt in my belly.
Four men and one woman, all moniyaw (2), get out of the plane. I see them approach the happy encampment and then like a flurry, I see women grab their children and run them into the bush. They are crouched down. I am terrified as I watch from above. I pee my pants. I hear screaming from the children and wailing from their mothers. No men, I see no men. I watch tiny dots of children being coerced onto the plane and it departs. And then like a candle being blown out, echoing silence fills the space. I feel the warm sensation of peeing a bit more. One by one, I see the mothers come out of the bush with their children. I hear shrill cries, I see the fires burning out, then total darkness and I awake.
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I remember community members telling us stories similar to those I had dreamed during my travels over the years. They talked about how their grandparents would move further back into the bush so they would never be scooped.
This dream was so close to the feeling of my own apprehension by the Department of Public Welfare, as it was named, in Edmonton, Alberta in 1962. There is no terror greater than that when a child loses its mother, and the mother loses her child.
A haunting memory forever etched in my unconscious. It was hard to know how to navigate life after such an injury to my spirit. I left my adopted home when I was sixteen, and never went back.
When I was twenty-five, a life-altering event happened. I woke up from an evening of intense drinking. My drinking career was well established. On Saturdays, I would meet my friends at the bar downtown at noon and stay until last call. Saturdays were the best days because they would bring in the biggest blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor and Long John Baldry. Those were the days and man, could we dance up a storm! That is how I grew to love the blues. I was a seasoned beer drinker. I had already decided that hard liquor got me into way too much trouble.
When I woke up that morning, I had thrown up nineteen times the night before, or so I was told. I have no memory. I now know that all those blackouts at the end of my drinking career were alcohol poisoning. I remember I woke up sicker than a dog, full of a remorse that was so familiar to me. I always had to be with others, because I could not bear the shame alone and I was convinced I was going to die if I kept this up.
My normal became very dark that morning. All those years, I used firewater as a superpower to escape this reality. I believed I was in control, indestructible and infallible. It gave me the illusion that I could fly to the moon, I could conquer any mountain, and most importantly, no one could ever hurt me again.
That morning my will to live just came coursing through my mind so strong, like a breath. I did not want to die. The story unfolds from there: I checked myself into detox and I have remained sober ever since. The incredible will to live was given to me in a brief second that has allowed me to share my story with you today. The will to heal, and to let the life force of the universe come closer, a heart opening, and the beginning of a journey to validate my undeniable faith in something far greater than me.
Over sixty years of life stories fold around me. As my grandmother whispers, intuition strengthens. As I stand at the centre of the universe I am brought back to the teachings of great mystery, the beginnings of all Creation, from the ocean floor, island buried, one million warm bodies sleeping. When I arrive, I know this place called home lives and dwells deep in my heart. Dream buried treasure.
I had a mere few years of sobriety when I received the phone call.
I was sitting in my office on a break when the phone rang.
I had never heard his voice, and yet I knew it right away. The sound of him, rising out of the vapours, validated my whole existence. I knew in that moment who I was—the blood in my veins, the colour of my skin, my voice and lifeline. His words: “You even sound like my dear late sister, your mother.” Resounding. The sound of his voice, returning an echo that I had listened for and never found, until then.
I went home after speaking to him for the first time, remembering his words, feeling them as a part of me already, a part that was always there and yet also missing—simply a profound awakening and remembering of my birthright.
His sister, my mother. My uncle, his niece.
Wearing a brilliant purple turtleneck that night, I looked in the mirror and said out loud, “Yes, you really are an Indian.” My voice sounded different. All those years with no validation. My voice missing its echo, no distant hills to bounce and return from to make meaning.
Uncle Tom, you will never ever know what it meant to me, the day you travelled all those miles to confirm, not just with words but with the voice that spoke them, that you were my uncle, and I was your niece.
When my birth mom passed in 1973, our traditional ways for taking care of her spirit had been forgotten. Over the years, I began to understand the significance of our releasing ceremonies. Sometimes our Loved Ones require some help. These ceremonies help the spirit that has not yet crossed over to find peace. I knew that after forty-two years, my birth mom’s spirit needed to go home. What a beautiful honouring we did that day. I prepared what I thought might be her favourite foods to feed to her after the ceremony. In a fraction of a human second, she crossed. I saw the Ancestors dancing with joy, dressed in their finest regalia, to the heartbeat of Mother Earth. I rejoiced in oneness with her sacred spirit and voice. From that day forward, I felt her embodiment of grace.
“What I want you to know, my daughter, is that I am safe and very, very happy. I want you to know I’m so proud of who you are becoming. I want you to know you have important work ahead of you. I know that because you are a strong dreamer. You have special gifts. Please remember to teach the children about death and not to be afraid of it. Life does not end. It’s so beautiful here, crystal clear and no shadows. You are now carrying on a legacy of hope. I’m always watching over you. You have to learn to ask for help. You must be clear in your intentions. You were born of the generation that is referred to as the quickening time of rapid change. You and all the other like-minded souls cannot wait and sit around any longer. Your people are starving for the teachings of the yellow shawl. The yellow shawl that I wish I could wrap around all of humanity. It brings the spirit of hope. I want you to know I see the strong warrior woman you are and have become. Please stay strong my daughter. Carry on in legacy of my life.”
And so, at each change of season, I travel deep below the Earth. Cascades of water and obsidian crystals are at her core. I float down on the longest cord and when I arrive, the fires are lit, and they all come in and we celebrate. Life. The timeline and realms blend together. I am a shape shifter. Today, I explode in fiery lava. Another timeline collapsed. I am moving towards infinite possibility.
My name is Keeper of the Stars Woman and I am from the Fish Clan.
(1) “Star” in Cree, Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary.
(2) “A White Person” in Cree, Alberta Elders’ Cree Dictionary.
Excerpt taken from "She Embodies Grace" by Terry Swan, an essay in Silence to Strength: Writings and Reflections on the Sixties Scoop edited by Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. Published by Kegedonce Press. Copyright © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith is a Saulteaux woman from Peguis First Nation and the author of These Are the Stories: Memories of a 60s Scoop Survivor published by Kegedonce Press in December 2021. She is an author, editor, writer, and journalist who graduated from the University of Toronto with a specialization in Aboriginal Studies in June 2011 and went on to receive her Master’s in Education in Social Justice in June 2017. Her first non-fiction story “Choosing the Path to Healing” appeared in
the 2006 anthology Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces. She has written for the Native Canadian, Anishinabek News, Windspeaker, FNH Magazine, New Tribe Magazine, Muskrat Magazine and the Piker Press. She has also co-edited the anthology Bawaajigan with fellow Indigenous writer Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler.
Terry Swan is Cree/Saulteaux and a member of Cold Lake First Nations. Throughout her career she has been a passionate advocate for equality and social justice, and has led the development of nationally lauded prevention and healing programs to address ending violence against Indigenous women and girls. As sole proprietor of Wahkohtowin Consulting, she works as a traditional healer within community-based organizations. Terry is a
lifelong writer whose work blends fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. She is currently writing her memoir, a story of her transformational healing journey as a Sixties Scoop survivor. She holds a M.Ed. from York University.