“But Miss Ravenhill some of this Res. school life is hard on the Kiddies (I think). I often wonder how we would re-act in their shoes” – Noel Stewart to Alice Ravenhill (Dec.29, 1940)
“They tell me I am the first teacher to come here that has made any attempt to develop the Indian Art and it’s the first year in the history of our school that any student’s work from here has appeared in print” – Noel Stewart to Alice Ravenhill (Feb.1, 1941)
“Within three weeks I realized that these Indian children were of a creative and talented people. And they were not dirty and decadent as thought by many of their white neighbors” – Anthony Walsh, “The Inkameep Indian School”
“The main objects in view are to assist our Indians in a development which should presently provide an economic security for at least a few of them...[and] should assist in establishing more sympathetic relations between them and their white fellow Canadians” – Alice Ravenhill to Miss Aitken (Feb.6, 1941)
This first phase of "the story is more than itself” walks a fine line between archive, research essay, and personal journey. It is an archive in that it gathers together correspondence, literary works, illustrations, newspaper articles, and magazine reviews from between 1939 and 1941 and makes these materials accessible to further research and exploration through detailed descriptions and content tags; it is a research essay in that I have selected and framed those materials with a specific purpose in mind, which is to provide a glimpse into the work and life-stories of three individuals—Alice Ravenhill, Anthony Walsh, and Noel Stewart—each of whom strived in their own way to promote the artistic abilities of Indigenous children enrolled in Indian Residential and Day Schools in British Columbia; and it is a personal journey in that I am a non-Aboriginal student who has a passion for engaging and learning more about Aboriginal cultures, peoples, and issues, but who does not yet know a great deal about any of these things, and putting this Collection together has been (and will continue to be) part of my learning process.
This first phase of the Collection is focused primarily on how three non-Aboriginal people, all in positions of privilege and power, interacted with the (largely nameless) Aboriginal children in their charge. Its purpose is not to uncritically glorify these three as well-intentioned, open-minded people who had the best interests of Aboriginal peoples at heart. Rather, following in the footsteps of Celia Haig-Brown and David Nock’s recent work, With Good Intentions: Euro-Canadian & Aboriginal Relations in Colonial Canada (2006), this first phase of the Collection “is an effort to interrupt less complex narratives concerning the ways that colonization in Canada proceeded” (7).
As non-Aboriginals, all three were agents of and implicated in a state whose objective was, in the infamous words of Duncan Campbell Scott, “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question” (Miller 223). In the years under examination, Ravenhill was working as the Secretary (later she became the President) of the British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts Welfare Society (BCIACWS), while Walsh and Stewart were teachers at the Inkameep Indian Day School (near Oliver) and St. George’s Indian Residential School (near Lytton), respectively.
Although generally well-intentioned, they were first and foremost working within the Indian Residential School (IRS) system as opposed to against it. Their attitudes towards “the Indians” were often paternalistic, and their respect and admiration for their Aboriginal students was—with exceptions—based largely on the latter’s commodifiable artistic skills as opposed to a recognition of common humanity. As Ronald Hawker asserts, “the image of cooperation and kindly paternalism suggested by the BCIAWS in its promotion of art and literature by First Nations children masked the horrific treatment the children themselves all too often received” (98). Indeed, St. George’s School, where Noel Stewart taught and temporarily acted as Principal in the early 1940s, became infamous in the 1960s and 1970s “for the horrific sex abuse scandals that forced it to close down and eventually caused the Anglican Diocese of the Cariboo to go bankrupt” (de Zwart).
Far from an isolated occurrence, such abuse characterized the IRS system as a whole. As Roland Chrisjohn and Sheri Young argue, the “Residential Schools were one of many attempts at the genocide of the Aboriginal Peoples inhabiting the area now commonly called Canada” (21). In recent years, this violence has come to light through a variety of channels, including the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and it has been publicly acknowledged through important (though contested) events such as the Settlement Agreement in September 2007 and the public apology from Stephen Harper to IRS survivors in June 2008. These events in many ways represent encouraging steps forward. At the same time, Sam McKegney maintains that “bringing to public light the often violent reality of residential school existence…won’t reverse the system’s corrosive social and political effects unless harnessed to a clear vision for the future and mobilized in the service of Indigenous empowerment” (6).
Part of this “clear vision,” I propose, includes acknowledging the complexities of the IRS as a historical and social reality. It would be reductive to hold all educators and administrators associated with the schools equally responsible for the widespread evils that the IRS enabled; some people within the system resisted it and tried to ease the hardship of their Aboriginal students. This phase of the archive insists that their resistance was and still is important. Relations between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals remains one of the most pressing issues of our contemporary moment in Canada, and in order to envision empowering forms of cross-cultural cooperation in the present, it is useful to see how previous generations understood and navigated such interactions in the past.
In approaching sensitive historical contexts like the IRS system in British Columbia, cultural relativism—“the temptation to judge the past solely in terms of the present” (Haig-Brown and Nock 21)—is often misleading. Terms and language that are unacceptable by today’s standards (“the Indian”) sometimes did not carry the same denotative and connotative meanings at different moments in history. Flattening the complexities of the situation can obscure the reality that “many in that day and age wished to deny education to Aboriginal people altogether because they believed it was self-evident that First Nations people were too low on the evolutionary ladder to ‘benefit’ from Western-style education” (8).
Viewed in this light, the artistic and educational endeavours undertaken by Alice Ravenhill, Anthony Walsh, and Noel Stewart are notable in that they opposed the prevailing apathy—and even hostility—of the majority of their peers towards the health, wellbeing, and education of Aboriginal children. The bulk of their efforts took place just before and during WWII, at a time when post- and anti-colonial movements had not yet become full-fledged global realities and “biological racism, social Darwinism, and evolutionary theories based on developmental stages bearing such evocative labels as ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’” had not yet been fully discredited or eliminated from social discourse (Nock 32).
On June 12, 1941, for example, Alice Ravenhill received a letter from a poet named Emily Leavens in which the latter writes, “It seems to me that every 'nice' person, every 'educated' person, every person in office, would promptly agree with that [line from my poem,] 'Let drink and disease exterminate them as soon as possible'”—a perceived sentiment eerily reminiscent of Scott’s bald declaration about the assimilative intentions of the Indian Act.
During the period of their correspondence, Ravenhill often used her social influence and contacts in Victoria to provide both teachers with emotional, ideological, and financial support as they pursued various arts-based educational initiatives with their Aboriginal pupils. Although the three did meet face to face on rare occasions, they communicated primarily through letters, a representative few of which have been digitized and transcribed here.
Among other things, the collaboration between the three was integral to the publication of “The Tale of the Nativity” (1939), a version of Jesus’s birth written by Walsh’s students, and “Meet Mr. Coyote” (1941), a series of ten legends from the Thompson Tribe near Lytton that were collected by Stewart and illustrated by his students—both of which were published and disseminated by Ravenhill and the BCIACWS; the production of “An Indian Nativity Play” (1940), a dramatic adaptation of “The Tale” written by Walsh and performed by his students at various shows and festivals; and the encouragement and promotion of many Aboriginal students at both Inkameep and St. George’s who later became well-known artists, including most notably Francois Batiste (Sis-hu-lk), Judith Morgan, Charles Edenshaw, George Clutesi, and Ellen Neel.
Most of these works, along with other materials, have been digitized and transcribed and are available in the "Publications" section.
Simon Fraser University
Works Cited and Consulted
Chrisjohn, Roland and Sherri Young. The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Penticton, BC: Theytus, 2006.
de Zwart, Mary Leah. “Meet Mr. Coyote.” ABC Book World. <http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=5462> last accessed 27 November 2011. Web.
Haig-Brown, Celia and David A. Nock. “Introduction.” With Good Intentions: Euro-Canadian & Aboriginal Relations in Colonial Canada. Ed. Celia Haig-Brown and David A. Nock. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006. 1-31.
Hawker, Ronald W. Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-1961. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003.
McKegney, Sam. Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential Schools. Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 2007.
Miller, J.R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty Making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
Ravenhill, Alice. “Alice Ravenhill to Miss Aitken (Feb.6, 1941).” The Story is More than Itself. http://thestoryismorethanitself.omeka.net/items/show/13 accessed 28 November 2011. Web.
Stewart, Noel. “Noel Stewart to Alice Ravenhill (Dec.29, 1940).” The Story is More than Itself. http://thestoryismorethanitself.omeka.net/items/show/6 accessed 28 November 2011. Web.
---. “Noel Stewart to Alice Ravenhill (Feb.4, 1941).” The Story is More than Itself.http://thestoryismorethanitself.omeka.net/items/show/11 accessed 28 November 2011. Web.
Walsh, Anthony. “The Inkameep School.” Osoyoos and District Museum and Archives.<http://osoyoosmuseum.ca/index.php/exhibits/collections/inkameep-day-school/16-exhibits/specialexhibits/inkameep/61-the-inkameep-indian-school.html> last accessed 27 November 2011. Web.