I was recently asked to create a personal response to the Witness Blanket project, created by Carey Newman. I am sharing my poem below. I must apologize in advance, as I tried to find online the appropriate Cree and Inuktitut words for the word “dearest”, as in a term of endearment. I included my references linked below. I encourage you to please feel free to comment and correct me if there is a better word choice for either of these. I will gladly change them.
Bear Witness: To bear witness, or to show by your existence that something is true, is to pay tribute to all who have been directly or indirectly affected by Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. (From the Witness Blanket website)
A Story Untold
Come join the blanket and bear witness
To the stories that were not yours,
Yet were planted in your mind.
Please show me, tell me –
Unclench the silence from your heart.
I know you’ve heard sounds
That cannot be drowned out.
I know you’ve seen things
That cannot be erased.
Long ignored, these old stories sprung new roots
Intertwining with other tales, other whispers,
The secrets that no one cared to say aloud.
I am so sorry that you felt alone.
I am so sorry that I ignored the signs.
I am so sorry that I did not hear your words.
You do not have to carry this burden privately.
Please, do not bear witness to these atrocities alone.
Âmî, kuluk, my dearest;
Come join the blanket and bear witness,
That your stories can be ours.
The seeds have been planted to create a new life.
It is time for a new story.
Researching the Witness Blanket evoked a very personal response in me. The trigger was not so much a specific item on the blanket, but the Witness Blanket in its entirety.
The name itself, and the definition of “Bear Witness” that appear on the website make me re-examine my own use of that phrase. I felt that although the project had involved many artifacts and stories from survivors of the Residential Schools, it was the bystanders that were perhaps hidden in the tree rings of the wood used to mount the objects. Bystanders – those who didn’t necessarily experience Residential Schools first hand, but rather they heard, suspected, saw things that deeply impacted them in other ways. Guilt, helplessness, anxiety are among the emotions that can cause serious trauma to an individual, even when that individual themselves hasn’t experienced the same horrors.
The second reason the “Witnesses” to these stories are so tangible to me is because of my husband’s recent experiences in Nunavut. While living there, he befriended many Inuit peoples, earned their respect, was invited into their homes and he asked some difficult questions which were met with honesty and openness. Some stories had occurred in the past, but many were recent and some still happen to this day. Although there are some small joys in the North, there are many social issues that I believe are now at crisis levels.
The horrors that my husband witnessed, heard about, and lived through, continue to occur since his departure. They are etched in his mind forever. They affected him, they affected me, they have affected our children.
But the ripples of these feelings of guilt, helplessness and anxiety can be counter-balanced and even overpowered with love, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, and compassion. The blanket stands for the honest acceptance of these events as a very real part of Canada’s history. It offers to take the burden of these events and share them across the backs of all Canadian people. It calls on us to begin a new, better chapter of Canadian history together.