‘Healing Through Storytelling’ project records testimony of Tyendinaga Mohawk residential school survivors

A new book, Healing Through Storytelling, provides a touchstone to recovery and restoration from the intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system by recording survivors’ stories in words and art.

Healing Through Storytelling was launched on Sep. 30, 2021. Photo Submitted.

The book, honouring local residential school survivors from the Bay of Quinte and their families, was made possible when Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:an (TTO) received funding from Canada Heritage to run a series of workshops aimed at commemorating and honouring residential school survivors from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory area. 

Konwanonhsiyohstha, Callie Hill, Executive Director of TTO gave details, “We did conduct research all through the project and we found over 130 names of members and of our ancestors that attended, and then this project was open to survivors, their families and the community. Really, anybody was able to take part in this because we are really all healing from the intergenerational trauma that was inflicted by residential schools and the things that happened there.” 

“And so we had a group of community members that participated in the project activities and we held a writing retreat and mixed media retreat and everything was geared towards healing — How do we heal and how do we move forward from this?” she said.

Since the funding came through for the project right before the pandemic began, the plan for the workshops and activities pivoted to an online format, Hill explained.

“We had to change everything that we were going to do, but we still did everything that we said we were going to do. We just did it in a virtual way,” she said.

Despite the challenge, the group, she said, “Created really amazing pieces. One lady who was a songwriter wrote lyrics and wrote a song. We had some people that did oil painting or working with mixed media art supplies, and we supplied everyone with all the art supplies and the writing supplies.”

The sessions and weekend retreats were led by professionals from the community she explained, “And also we had counselling support available to people all through all of the activities that we did, because it is such a deep subject and there is the possibility of triggering people with memories and that sort of thing. And so, counsellors were involved in all of the activities.”

“The final output,” said Hill, “was a documentary type of a video that documented the project itself. And then we had money to do a book, and the book ended up being a beautiful book.”

“One section of the book was dedicated to identifying our survivors and finding as many pictures as we could,” she explained. “I think we have 37 pictures out of 133 people that we’ve identified, but since we did our own book launch in our community on September 30, Orange Shirt Day, we’ve been made aware of two more names of people from our community that attended residential schools. And so I think, as people read our book or hear about our project, feel more comfortable sharing that part of their history, the number is going to grow.”

The  60-page colour book entitled Healing Through Storytelling is being shared with participants or their family members, other contributors, libraries, and key community members. With another 200 available for sale, proceeds will benefit the language and cultural revitalization efforts of TTO.

“We’re grateful to those who chose to share their stories with us, and to the Government of Canada for their support in preserving this information for all time,” said Hill. “As we work to reclaim and rebuild our traditional ways of being, it’s important to know not only where we are going, but also where we have come from. Resources like this will help inform future generations of what we have lost, but also what we have overcome and how we have persevered.”

The book was formally unveiled to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory community on September 30, National Orange Shirt Day, a date that serves to, “commemorate the residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families, and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation,” with symbolism centred around the story of Phyllis Webstad, whose brand new bright and shiny orange shirt was taken from her upon arrival at her first day of residential school.

“The only thing we were able to do in person was our book launch on September 30. And we did in a very limited way,” Hill conveyed. “But it was in person. And we didn’t invite any media or anyone to that because we just wanted it to be a small, intimate event introducing the community first to the book and all the information. It was a beautiful event.”

Healing Through Storytelling is available to the general public for sale in-person at TTO’s offices or online (with an additional shipping cost). It is also available for loan at the Kanhiote Library (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory), as well as Belleville, Deseronto, and Queen’s University libraries.

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