Stories – personal and collective – have so much power. The stories that we tell about ourselves and about our families and communities can move us towards healing, or away from it. Because of the power of these stories, a power we are too often unaware of, most of us have tales that are untold, unknown, or sometimes hidden in plain sight. Such is the case for my own family, regarding my maternal grandmother Vera Cone’s childhood experiences. Let me explain more.
I have faint recollections of Vera, she passed on to other dimensions when I was in elementary school. I do recall her style, her strong energy and presence. Everybody in our family had stories about her, many tales of courage and spunk. My mother, her youngest child, would recount them to me often.
One of my mother’s favorite stories was about Vera’s step-father, William Morris Stewart, and grandma’s childhood spent partially in Nevada. Grandma Vera never knew her real father, who had died before she was born in Washington DC. A few years later, her mother (Mary Agnes Atchison) had married one of her husband’s friends who had just become a widower. This man was William Morris Stewart, who at that time was the first Senator to serve from Nevada, which had just become a state.
Over the years, I heard many a tale about this man, who helped raise my grandmother. Standing six foot six with flaming red hair, he was the stuff of legends. He made and lost several fortunes in silver mining out West, and was a lawyer to boot. I was told how William Morris Stewart knew Mark Twain, offering him lodging and a position as his personal secretary for a short time when Twain wrote his first book – Innocents Abroad. (They eventually quarreled due to Twain’s cigar smoking habits and other issues). I was told how William Morris Stewart had been offered a position on the US Supreme Court, but turned it down to return back West to Nevada, which he preferred above life in Washington DC.
I was also told that William Morris Stewart had, among his many feats, helped the Indians by setting up a school to teach the Indian children so they could advance and have a better life. This story was one of my mother’s favorites – “What good work to help the Indians,” Mom would tell me with a smile.
Fifteen years ago, I was invited to Reno, Nevada to visit an educational program. During this trip, I mentioned my connection to William Morris Stewart and my host looked at me aghast. “That was the man who set up the horrible Indian boarding school that took so many Native children away from their families and tribes and forced them to only speak English and give up their traditional cultures.”
This was not the way my family had told me the story. Listening in Reno to this was a shock, and it was also a wake-up call.
My mother never quite grasped or accepted the version of the Stewart story I had learned in Reno. She could not give up the ‘helper’ slant, the ‘good white man helps the uncivilized Indians’ version. My sister did not really care much either way, and when I drafted a letter of apology to send to the former Stewart Indian School (now a museum and location of the Nevada Indian Council) she did not feel there was any need for her to sign. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she told me. “I don’t have anything to apologize for.”
My extended family was not close. My mother’s older brother Harry had three daughters whom I rarely saw. One was institutionalized from a young age. The other two had left for California in the 1960s and did not even attend their father’s funeral. They both changed their names, and I had no contact with them for many years. And then through the twists of life, shortly after my Reno visit I happened to reconnect with one of them – now called Simone.
“I will always apologize, it is good for the soul,” Simone told me when she signed the letter to the Stewart Indian School. She had cried with sorrow when I told her the story of the school.
Flash forward to June 2017. I am in Regina, Canada, attending a conference on Indigenous Higher Education between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Held at the First Nations University in Regina, perhaps the largest Indian university in North America, in talks we learn more about the recent efforts of the Canadian government and people to move towards truth-speaking and apologizing for their history of Indian Residential Schools (the last of which did not close until the 1960s). The largest class action suit in Canadian history, settled in 2007, was about these Indian Residential Schools and their searing legacy of abuse and community and cultural genocide. From this legal case came the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a final report in 2015 with ninety-four points of action.
At several sessions in the conference, Canadians of Native American ancestry spoke of the inter-generational trauma of these boarding schools, repercussions still felt deeply. Some of the speakers had attended these schools; all had family members still alive who had done so. I tried to visualize how I would have felt if my six year old daughter or son had been wrested from me and taken far away to be taught a different language and lifestyle than my own. How would I have handled only seeing my child two months a year, on brief visits in the summertime, and perhaps not even being able to communicate with them in a common language?
A Canadian educator of the Ojibway nation said that the Canadian boarding schools had gone on for seven generations, and it would take seven generations at least to heal the trauma and pain. And he called on all Canadians to learn new stories about the Native peoples and nations – for an indigenization of education for everyone. This is also a recommendation stemming out of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
The second morning of the Regina conference opens with a pipe ceremony, led by an elder from the Cree nation. All of us women are told to wear long skirts, or at least to cover our legs with a blanket. We sit around the outside perimeter of the circle, housed in a tepee-like structure within the university. In the inner circle are the participating men, who smoke the pipe as it is passed around. The air is pungent with the smell of ceremonial smoke; the sacredness of the moment is palpable in the enclosed space as some of us participants feel tears coming to our eyes, shivers upon flesh.
“Now is the time to offer a prayer for those who are not here,” the Cree elder says. “This is the way of our tradition.”
After a moment of silence, one and then another and another person share out loud a prayer for a mother recently passed on, for a sick friend, etc. I sit silent, wondering, do I have the courage in this space to speak of my family’s story, and is it appropriate?
The last of the prayers have been made and the Cree elder is about to close when I manage to softly speak my Grandmother Vera’s name. I pray for her. And I mention William Morris Stewart and the Indian Boarding School he established in Nevada. I speak only a few sentences, my heart pounding in my chest as the words come out of my mouth. “We have much reconciliation to do in the United States.” And then somehow, some way, I hear my own voice saying, “Those of us who come from families that carried out this abuse also have our pains and ancestral sorrows.”
The Cree elder nodded. I like to think he understood. Seven generations from now, what will be the stories told of this time and place?