A RIVER OF TEARS
- the story of south thompson river -
Elias Tieber, Mona Supersberger, Johanna Fuchs, Timm Felder, Bastian Gasser
Hey, I’m Nora Brooks, and Kamloops, Canada is where I live. I’ve spent my whole life in British Columbia so far. I know what you are thinking, at an age of 24 I should have seen another country or two. But my parents never fancied traveling the world. All that my holidays consisted of so far, was either hiking with them at various mountains all around my birthplace or working at my uncles workshop to earn myself a little extra money. It was my 16th birthday when he first asked me to help him out. Since I liked the thought of gaining a little autonomy, I happily accepted. Actually, I’ve never really got to know him quite well before that. Of course, you see each other at certain special events, but conversations usually never go beyond simple small talk at these occasions. So that’s how the summer of 1997 started to become the most important summer of my life so far. That’s why I’d like to share it with you.
I’ve never really had a bad life. Mom and Dad always cared for me in a very special loving way. And also financially things where ok. I’m allowed to count myself along the lucky ones who call a well chosen circle of wonderful people my friends. Live wasn’t too bad. So, what’s wrong, one could ask. Somehow, sixteen-year-old me, had developed a special curiosity for where I belonged in life. Since my parents never wanted to answer questions regarding my grandparents or our ancestry in general, this denial of curiosity led on to some kind of tension that had risen inside of me. It was a vacuum that needed to be filled. Why would they purposefully deny me self awareness concerning my origin? It felt unfair and those thoughts drove me crazy. They never did something like this before, no matter how unpleasant the topics had been. I had to leave my parents with this chasm between us. As a consequence, I really felt bad and even considered not to go in the first place. Today I’m glad I did.
I knew that my uncle was some kind of artist, but I had never questioned what he did specifically. Entering his studio for the first time, when he showed me around, held a big surprise. I had never really seen such an art style before. When I thought of him as a painter, all I had in mind where these stereotypical paintings of modern art one is used to from visiting art galleries. But what he did was very different. The room was filled with big canvases, some almost reaching the ceiling, a few just laying on the floor. Many of them were unfinished. It seemed like he was working on them simultaneously. All these paintings had one thing in common, they shone with strong vibrant colours. Abstract forms and undefinable silhouettes intertwined to form creatures, radiating mystic signs of nature. Once i had seen them, they settled in my mind to stay. I was left in awe for what he did.
Since I was staying at his place during these 3 weeks, we got to know each other pretty fast. My days would often have the same structure. Getting up at 7 or 8. Priming Canvases, running errands, cleaning brushes… the list goes on. Despite the tasks being monotonous, there wasn’t a single boring minute. We talked a lot, about many things. And even those moments of silence, be it 5 minutes or half an hour, where filled with excitement I felt just by watching him, bringing those vivid dreams of nature to life. About an hour or two before dawn, we would have dinner together. After that, he would say something like: „Come on Nora, get lost and have some fun outside. “ He never asked where I had gone after coming home, if I didn’t start telling him on my own. I remember thinking to myself: “That must be how it feels to be an adult! you don’t need to justify yourself for every action. “ I actually felt more like a colleague or friend to him, rather than his niece. I wasn’t used to be on equal footing with an authority figure and those days had great impact on how I still want to treat people in general.
The Studio was located opposite to an Outlet Store at Curlew Road, surrounded by a few other buildings like a car dealer, the Gateway City Church and a place called Moon Wok Chinese Restaurant that looked very run down to me. It was the end of the first week, when I started to explore the streets further away from the workshop. At the end of our street, you came to the highway, which was accompanied by railroad tracks on the opposite side. And that’s where the South Thompson River separated the city from the rural area on the other side. Since I’ve always loved nature and I was naturally drawn into the wild. To cross the River, I had to walk about a mile along its bed. There was a Bridge then, mainly built for car traffic. When I walked along the narrow sidewalk and cars were passing by, I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and creeping under my shirt from behind. As I set foot on the other side, that’s where my journey to finding out who I really was began. Even though I didn’t know it yet.
At the area, where the river almost took a 90 degree turn, there were a few older buildings, all built with red bakestone. They all seemed to surround a big circular wooden structure located in the middle of an open grass field. The whole scenery had a special effect on me and my curiosity. I couldn’t assess what it was exactly, but in the end, it made me stay there the rest of the evening, until the last rays of light were going down behind the small mountains surrounding the valley. When I had finally arrived at home, me and my uncle got into a long conversation that lasted way after midnight. At first, I told him about the rest of my day and some details about my little afternoon spree and I learned from him that what I had visited was the Kamloops Indian Residential School. He then asked me if my parents never told me about this place. I was surprised at first, but after a while, the conversation got a little deeper and at some point, I was comfortable enough telling him about this little conflict I had with them concerning this topic. That I was frustrated and that I couldn’t even tell why. Mostly, he was just listening to me talking, only answering, when words seemed necessary. At the end, I felt a lot lighter going to bed, knowing someone cared about these feelings.
At the next day, I didn’t really think at all about what happened the night before. I was in a good mood overall and the hours were passing by, at least until I heard a knock on my door after dinner. My uncle opened it but didn’t step inside. He was just standing there between the door. Holding something in his hands. He told me about how our conversation made him think a lot and that he really appreciated it. What he was holding was an old book inside a leather binding, which he then held out to me. He said it was once his mothers and because he didn’t want it to just gather dust on a shelf unused, he would like to give it to me. He must have thought about this moment for a while since the few words he said seemed carefully chosen and well thought through. Since I didn’t really know how to react, I just answered something along the lines of: “Thanks, I’ll read it.“ He put it next to my desk on a little shelf and left the room with a: “Good night, Nora.“ Left behind I stood up and grabbed it.
Skipping through the first few pages, I immediately realized that it wasn’t just an ordinary old book. The text was written in a beautifully clean handwriting. And on some pages, there were little ink drawings. They reminded me a lot of my uncle’s art style. Even though the old writing was hard to decode, I soon was totally hooked. I started reading it and the first words already left me puzzled. Property of Shawnee Brooks. Who was Shawnee and why did we share the same name? This night, I went on a quest to find out. I realized quickly that it had to be some sort of diary written by one of my ancestors. Maybe it was my grandmother, or even my great grandmother, I could only guess on that. But the excitement about this whole puzzle soon gave way to a depressing sadness about what I had to read.
She described how she was forced to attend the very school I had visited that afternoon, how she was being deprived of her freedom, brutally taken away from her family and her home, forced to be someone else, with no one close to her, except her little brother, whom she tried to protect with all she had. Without identity, forbidden to speak in her mother tongue and suffering many years of neglect and abuse at the hands of religious organizations, she wrote about him, whom she was separated from upon, whom she was forbidden to speak to, who eventually died during an influenza epidemic that had broken out and who was buried without a name on the schoolyard.
If all these things where true, they had to live in unhuman conditions, no one could imagine today. I couldn’t believe that something like that happened where I life, to my family and it wasn’t too long ago either. It’s one thing, reading about segregation of people with different origin or even genocides. Of course, you feel sympathy and pity for them out of empathy, but it’s a whole different way how feelings arise inside of you when you realize that you yourself and people you love were affected by injustice this cruel. A mixture of sadness and anger was forming hurtful clumps in my throat which I had to swallow. Soon, tears began to run down, over my face and onto the yellow pages that smelled like vanilla, leaving ugly stains. After finishing the last page, I was devastated, lying there at 4 am, staring at the ceiling. Thoughts were swarming my mind. I had a lot of questions and only few answers.
I visited my uncle many times after that, and he will always have a special place in my heart after showing to me what I needed to see in a hurtful but honest and loving way. The truth does sometimes hurt, but please, never try to hide it! It wasn’t too long after these holidays back then, when I decided to study arts at university for myself. Standing up for who I am and where I come from, proudly presenting it through my paintings. Now I’m almost finished with my masters degree at the Faculty of Arts at Thompson Rivers University and soon I myself will teach Aboriginal Education at Kamloops School of the Arts. I can’t wait for a new chapter to come, where all of us can live peacefully together, not formed and molded into being the same, but equitably everyone as they are.
in memory of those affected.