Canadian Indian School Survivor Shares Her Story at Annual ‘National Day of Mourning’

Excerpt of a speech by Harriet Prince, a survivor of the Canadian Indian residential school system, produced by Melinda Tuhus

This year, the 54th National Day of Mourning took place on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The annual rally and march was organized by the United American Indians of New England to celebrate indigenous lives, to mourn what indigenous tribes and nations have lost through settler colonialism, and to lift up current struggles. About 1,000 people attended, making it one of the largest gatherings in its history.

There was a great emphasis on the struggle of the Palestinian people, with much chanting against Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza. One rally speaker was Harriet Prince, an 82-year-old survivor of a Canadian Indian residential school, who became a famed pow-wow dancer after she left the school.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus was at the rally and recorded Prince’s story of her abduction from her family, her experience in forced confinement and how it shaped her life. In her talk, she references the 215 remains of Indian children identified recently at one of the schools in Kamloops, Canada.

[Web editor’s note: The audio version of this interview was edited to fit broadcast time constraints.]

HARRIET PRINCE: Hello everybody! I’m glad to be here, that was quite a trip from Vancouver. (speaks in Anishinaabe).

I come from a little res (reservation) called Sagkeeng in Manitoba. What I said there was my inner name is Mickenac, meaning Turtle, and that’s how I move, if you noticed (chuckles).

I went to three residential schools. I was four years old when I was taken away and didn’t get out until I was 17. I didn’t go home all those years, so I was robbed of family love and all that. But I survived (cheering). Still here.

My little sister was 3 years old and my brother was 6. When we got there we got bathed, they took our clothes away. Cut our hair. The first three nights they put DDT in our hair – can you imagine that? They put DDT in our hair and wrapped our hair turban-style and we slept that way for a long time. When they put us to bed, we could hear little girls crying. We were lonely, we were scared, we didn’t know where we were. I was 4 and my sister was 3, and we wondered, When’s our mom and dad coming for us? I didn’t see them ’til I was 17.

We only went to school for half a day. Maybe when I was 7, they got me to start scrubbing floors on my hands and knees, sometimes with a toothbrush.

What saved me was Elvis Presley! That was in ’56, I was 12. You do the math (laughs).

We didn’t get all that much education in a half-day of school. We had to do housework, sewing, scrubbing floors, laundry. As I got older, I started learning from the older girls how to behave, how to listen. I was scared to get punished, so I listened and hid most of the time from the staff, because I didn’t want to be slapped or hit for speaking my language. To this day I mostly understand my native language – Anishinaabe, Ojibway – but I can speak it if I have to save my life.

I had two close friends and we decided, we’re gonna run away. We didn’t last long, they came and found us and we got strapped, of course and we had welts up to our arms up here. We still had to go to school that way and we wore long sweaters.

(Crowd yells, We love you! Still here! Whoops)

Thanks. I needed to hear that.

They made us go to church quite often and all I heard in church was death, death, and in our culture we talk about life, life. They put that fear of God in me and the fear of death in me. Now, I’m ready, Creator, because it’s going to be a good life up there, to see the ancestors.

When I heard about the 215 in the Kamloops area, I was bound and determined to go and find those unmarked graves and pay my respects, put my tobacco down. I sat there, put my tobacco down, prayed, and cried, and talked to the ancestors. And there’s more, there’s more schools, there’s more unmarked graves out there. It could very well have been me or my little sister that would have been down in one of those unmarked graves, but we were lucky – we got away.

As residential school survivors, truth helps us survive. Our spirit is what holds our bodies together. Our anger – I call it righteous anger – we have to work on getting rid of this anger which I’m still working on it today, because from 4 years old to 17, my childhood was taken away, my family, all the love I should have been having (cries).

Through ceremony we can overcome this. Ceremony and culture saved my life. Love also. We must first forgive ourselves in order for us to feel love, to love ourselves first and then work on forgiveness.

They didn’t get rid of the Indian in me – I’m still here. Thank you. (wild cheering and drumming).

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