Photo by Sweetgrass McKenzie & Louisa Hext
Ish Kode Bish Iki (Morris ‘Doc’ Mosay) was taken from his family as a young boy and placed in a Native American boarding school where children were immersed in European-American culture in order to “civilize” and “Christianize” them. The number of Native American children in these schools reached a peak in the 1970s, with an estimated enrollment of 60,000. Later investigations revealed many documented cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse occurring at such schools which separated children from their families and encouraged or forced them to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.
My real name is Ish Kode Bish Iki (Fire Buffalo). When I was eight-years-old I was taken by force and ripped from my mother’s arms, away from my family. I was shipped off to The Hayward Indian boarding school (in Wisconsin) where our heads were shaved, boys and girls alike. After being dunked into a harsh chemical-filled tank, I was marched into a dark room where I was dusted with white delousing powder and left huddled with the other children as we cried in silence.
We were made to wear Nazi-like military green wool, prickly uniforms complete with high-topped boots. I was taken to a classroom where I was told to sit, without speaking. If I spoke in my native Ojibwa tongue, I was slapped and knocked off my chair by the nearest monitoring nun who would scream, “That’s the Devil’s language”. We were crippled by Father Flanagan’s favourite form of punishment, to have us kneel on marbles for hours on end. While the nuns called us “Dumb stupid savages”, Father Flanagan walked the classroom with his leather strap which he used on our backs and beat us till we bled. I witnessed Father Flanagan take unfortunate girls to his rectory and molest them. When he was done the girl would return, her body torn and ripped with blood streaming down her legs.
Father Flanagan and the nuns beat the savage out of me, took my religion, my language, my culture and my dignity. However I did not surrender. I chose to remain a strong Ojibwa man. Then finally, when I was about 13, I decided I could not take any more and so I ran away from the boarding school to my grand-parents and never returned. I didn’t go to my parents because they had become drunks by now. My grand-parents and I cried when I returned to them. They were happy to have me home again. I soon fell back into my place in the Lodge in the Indian camp where many other families lived. My recovery came from being in the woods with my grand-parents gathering medicines, hunting, foraging roots, herbs and berries. My grandmother had a pet crow, a groundhog and a raccoon and it was this nurturing and respect for all the living creatures that helped to heal my wounds. It was a matter of not focusing on where I had been or talking about the trauma but returning to the roots of my Ojibwa people.
It was through this restorative healing provided by my grand-parents and the Ojibwa traditions that I embraced the White education system. I had been told I was a dumb, stupid savage and I wanted to prove that I could amount to something. I enjoyed learning and continued through college, acquiring a PhD in Sociology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a result I got involved in helping create the Indian Resource Centers in the Twin Cities region.
I was active and advocating for my people for many years until I had a stroke when I was 55, which consequently impaired my vision and overall mobility. At this point I returned to the Chippewa reservation at Round Lake, Wisconsin, where I continue to live to this day.
I am sickened by what I see in my community and it has made it hard to forget and forgive my past. I can see so clearly the damage that White society has done. My people are still trapped in their past, uneducated and oppressed. The community remains without its ‘Warriors’, entrenched in a ‘Me’-based society which is not part of the traditions that my grand-parents engrained in me.
The battles I fight today are both within myself and with my People. I continue to voice and write letters within my community and to government agencies about the abuses that exist on my reservation. The abuse remains embedded. It is very difficult to step outside the historical trauma that perpetuates. My People choose to endure the pain they are familiar with and sometimes I wonder if change will ever come? Even I, from time to time, slip back into this cycle and lose hope but the ‘Warrior’ in me does not give up. This is what I was taught by my grand-parents.
Although I see the past trauma and sickness amongst my people, I continue to stand and represent what the Ojibwa teachings have given to me. I have survived each and every storm that presents itself. I am the strong oak with roots that run deep.