Throughout our Global Perspectives on Indigenous Literature class, I had the distinct pleasure of becoming acquainted with a wide array of works created by Indigenous writers, as well as watching several Indigenous films. Some of these pieces gently touched my heart, some made me stew with anger and frustration, and some left me thoughtful and reflective. We had an opportunity to really explore the meaning behind each of the pieces that we studied, honing in on particular lessons that were being taught, or challenges that were being conveyed. In this essay, I will be reflecting upon some of the main lessons that I have learned from one poem in particular (which can be heard here).
Early in the semester we spent some time looking at creative works that were inspired by and created around the topic of the residential “school” system. Each of these pieces was powerful and haunting in its own way, but the one which really stood out to me was a poem entitled, “Monster” by Dennis Saddleman. In this firsthand account, we are transported to another place, given a view of one of these “schools” through the eyes of a child who would persevere through years of abuse, neglect, and torture to come out a survivor. In this piece, Saddleman describes the physical attributes of the building, sinister and unwelcoming, which, to his child-mind resembled a real live monster. As the poem continues, we are brought along on a journey where the “ugly face, grooved with bricks” and the “grimy windows” resemble “monster eyes watching terrified children”. This description grows even more terrifying as the building is said to have “squeezed my happiness, squeezed my dreams, squeezed my native voice”. What is described here by Dennis Saddleman is not told to us as a faded memory of a traumatic event, but rather highlights the lasting impacts of the experience on survivors to this day. “You’re a slimy monster, oozing in the shadows of my past, go away, leave me alone, you’re following me. Following me wherever I go”.
This work stuck with me so strongly after we read it together in class. While I was already extremely empathetic to the victims who survived this system (and those who did not), reading this personal experience opened my eyes to a deeper layer of the damage done to individuals who were removed from their homes and families. These children were pulled, screaming, from their mothers and corralled in cold, loveless institutions of assimilation and genocide. They were separated from their siblings and cousins, kept from speaking the only language that they knew, and made to take part in strange customs, unfamiliar to them.
This poem was a very brutal and honest lesson for me, further demonstrating the lasting negative effects of the colonial system on individual Indigenous children who, in the scariest moments of their young lives, had no one to rely on for comfort. Saddleman’s work painfully expressed the psychological damage done to these children as they were removed from their healthy attachments and repeatedly abused by adults. As we spoke about in class, opening ourselves up to hearing the personal accounts of the victims that describe the lasting impacts of these circumstances is one way to gain a new perspective on some of the challenges and lack of support facing Indigenous communities. These traumatic events impacted generations of Indigenous people and directly lead to the disproportionate representation of those struggling with substance abuse issues, those facing intimate partner violence, those living in poverty, and other types of marginalization.
In effect, Dennis Saddleman’s poem, Monster, is one of the most powerful pieces of literature that I’ve read from the point of view of a survivor. To have read this before the discovery of the 215+ was incredibly poignant timing, and it was a reading that I shared with many people throughout the conversations that followed. I am eternally grateful to Dennis Saddleman for this piece and the raw emotion he poured into it.