My Decade at Old Sun,
My Lifetime of Hell
I am sitting here tonight—three days before Christmas in 2010—alone in my basement. Nobody wants to have anything to do with me because I have been drinking. Before my wife left the house, she told me, “I don’t want to take you. All you’re going to do is drink.” So, once again, I am left by myself because I am not wanted. I have messed up so badly in my life that I cannot even be a father or a husband to anyone.
I screwed up so bad with life. Why am I still here? I can’t do anything right. I wish someone would just kill me, like they do with wounded animals. It would put me out of the misery I have lived with for so long. I just wanted to be part of everything. I cannot be perfect in everything I do, but I try to do my best.
I am crying, but I do not wish to take my own life for it is wrong to take life when it is such a great gift from God. I have been hurt so much so much in life. I feel so inadequate about myself. Why can’t someone come forward to give me a hug just the way Mother used to hug me? Simply that would make me feel wanted and loved. I did not ask to be this way. I just wanted to be normal like everybody else, and for that I get punished for life for what I went through. Nobody should have to go through what I went through.
The suicidal thoughts of that Christmas-time evening don’t happen all the time now, but that night was similar to many others when I’ve been home alone. I have real good conversations with my best buddy, Coors Light, who never condemns me or is critical of my actions. Coors Light just listens to me with no back talk. He is the only one who seems to understand how I feel, and when the scenes from residential school start going like a TV screen, he doesn’t mind that I cry like a baby. He doesn’t say a word. He lets me wonder why no one is around to hug me and kiss me on the forehead and say, “There, there, Art, everything is going to be all right. Mommy is here to protect you from harm and danger.”
But the harm and danger have already taken a toll, both physically and emotionally, and the tears keep coming like a waterfall. They seem endless, but then, like a bolt of lightning, I come back to reality, and I say to myself, “What the hell are you crying about you fucking big baby? Nobody is going to help you. Grow up and take it like a man, just like you have always done before! You are alone in this fight, so get used to it. No one is going to give you any tender loving care. Mommy is gone, so be brave and fight on for yourself.” When I am through scolding myself, I take a deep breath and have another beer to soothe the pain I have inside of me.
As I look back on my life, I find myself laughing at it, swearing at it, and feeling some fondness for some aspects of it. My life is like a cocoon that never really hatched. I was prevented from becoming a full-fledged butterfly with all its natural beauty. I remember the happiness and the joy of being young and surrounded by adults who cared for and loved me. And then I was forced to enter residential school, and I get angry and bitter about what I lost, and I feel a lot of pain. I drink to forget this pain, but with each sip, the pain seems to grow bigger inside of me. It’s almost like some kind of disease eating away at my innards, but I carry on battling my demons and recognize that I am lucky to have the family I have now and that I carry with me the spirit of my culture and traditions.
I, Arthur Bear Chief, owe my resilience to our ancestors and elders for instilling in me a spirit strong enough to survive what I went through in residential school. We survivors left the residential schools with so many scars that we would carry for the rest of our lives. Eventually these scars would lead many of us to an early death. A few of us managed to prosper in careers, to live a comfortable life and raise a family, but this wasn’t because of anything we were taught in residential school. It was a testament to our Indian spirit and our determination to overcome obstacles even in the most difficult situations. I praise my ancestors and grandparents for giving me both. The schools may have beaten us physically and emotionally, but we came out with the same spirit that our ancestors instilled in us so many years past. I once heard an old saying, which is still true: “You may beat us, break our bones. Then you can have my dead body, but not my obedience.”
When I look back to my first year at Old Sun Indian Residential School, I remember standing outside the washroom located in our playroom. Reverend Cole, along with the farm boss, Mr. Fraser, with the strap in his hand, waited for the big boys to come out of the washroom. Fraser would lay at least four or five straps on each boy’s hand, but they showed no pain on their faces. They simply walked away with a smirk, as if this was an everyday thing they had endured in the past. Looking back now, I can almost see the spirit of our ancestors sparkling in their eyes. Today, their reaction makes me proud of my Indian heritage and the resilience that comes with it. These older boys taught me something early on in residential school, and that is to hang onto my courage and spirit no matter what obstacles are put in front of me.
I almost lost the Indian spirit in me when I left the reserve in the sixties. I thank my ancestors for not turning their backs on me. I can almost see it like it was yesterday at a powwow, when an elder stands up with a blanket wrapped around his waist, dances in one spot, raises an eagle feather in one hand and hoots. What a powerful spirit!
Sometimes I wonder if my child’s spirit is still waiting for me to take it back home to settle into the life that was so comfortable and good before we were taken away from home so long ago. I still cry in silence when I think of all those years in that place, so alone and scared, wondering what’s going to happen next—yearning for my mother’s touch and hug like it used to be. That will only ever come back in my dreams. How sad for me to be denied the right to have a normal childhood upbringing.
I am writing this book in hopes that it will help me in my journey of healing and recovery from my abuse at Old Sun Residential School. Everything else I have attempted eventually led me back to myself without any resolution to rid me of my demons. My emotions still overtake me at times, and I sit and cry for myself and many others who are not here—gone, but not forgotten by me. May your spirits guide me in the writing of my book. If your spirit is restless, I hope this book will give you some sense of peace. If that is the case, I too will be at peace with you.
When I go back to the days before residential school, I think very fondly of the memories of my mother. She used to touch my face and give me a little hug, just a little reassurance of her love. This may seem inconsequential to many, but it meant a lot to me at that time. To be denied this is what was so fundamentally wrong with the residential schools. Chief Dan George said in My Heart Soars, “There have been times when we all wanted so desperately to feel a reassuring hand upon us . . . there have been lonely times when we so wanted a strong arm around us.” This is so true. In my first years at the Old Sun school, I would run out to the prairie to cry because I felt so lonely. I can still feel the pain when I talk about it. My tears come with no encouragement. They just naturally flow. How I wish so many times that I could go back to my childhood just to feel the loving touch of my mother’s hands. It was so unfair.
Dan George says, “We all must have love to live. It nurtures us and gives us the feeling of being wanted and cared for. Love is something you and I must have. We must have it because our spirit feeds upon it. We must have it because without it we become weak and faint. Without love our self-esteem weakens. Without it our courage fails. Without love we can no longer look out confidently at the world. Instead we turn inwardly and begin to feed upon our own personalities and little by little we destroy ourselves.” The lack of love I got at Old Sun Indian Residential School turned me out into the world as an uncaring, unloving, cold, emotionless individual with no understanding of what love meant. My alcoholism and the demons inside of me have been destroying me little by little. In the end, this may well be my demise. This is a true testimony of what the residential schools did to me personally. How can I honestly say that I forgive you for what you did to me? I am so bitter and angry at many things. It is hard for me to move on because I can’t. The past has yet to be cleansed from my memory.
I was born on the Blackfoot Indian Reserve #146 on June 25, 1942, at the old Blackfoot hospital. My parents, Walker and Martha Bear Chief, were married on November 26, 1933. They had a total of twelve children, and I was number five:
My parents had also attended residential school on the reserve, my father going to Old Sun and my mother to the Crowfoot Indian Residential School. They did not participate much in our traditional culture. But they did have my oldest brother raised by his grandparents when he was a youngster, and I remember them singing some of our traditional songs. I also know that my father eventually sold off his parents’ Indian artifacts.
My mother stayed at home with the young kids, while my father went off to work. First, he worked as a farm hand, but by the time I was born, he was employed by the Imperial Oil Company in Calgary. Then he worked for the Gleichen flour mill, and in 1949 he began working as an interpreter for the Department of Indian Affairs at the Blackfoot Indian Agency. He moved up in the hierarchy of the department and stayed there until he retired.
My paternal grandparents were William and Minnie Bear Chief. Their Blackfoot names were Gull Chief and Man Killer. The story I heard about my grandfather is that he was found by a member of the North-West Mounted Police out on the prairies during a snow storm. The officer, James Stanford, took him to Montana when he left the force, and my grandfather was raised by James’s mother until he turned eighteen. Then he got on a stage to come back to Alberta to visit his own mother. But instead of returning to Montana, he stayed at Siksika and married Minnie Dog Child, who was from the Blood tribe. He joined the NWMP and stayed with the force for ten years. After he left the force in 1915, he raised cattle and took up farming. Grandfather Bear Chief died in 1943 at the age of eighty-one. I was still a baby when he passed away, so I never knew him. But Grandmother Bear Chief, who later took up with Peter Little Light, I knew very well. She lived to the age of eighty-nine, passing away in 1960.
My maternal grandparents were Black Kettle and Mary Black Kettle. I know nothing about my grandfather; he died long before I was born. Grandmother Mary was born at North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Her Blackfoot name was One Night Alone, and her father was a white man. I know that she had one sister, Mrs. Ida Inkster, who homesteaded in the North Battleford region. When she was still a baby, Mary returned to Siksika with her mother. With Black Kettle, Grandmother Mary had three children, Francis, Nicholas, and Martha, my mother. After the death of Black Kettle, she married Heavy Shield, who I spent much time with when I was a young boy.