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Church Schools Savages

Donna Pinay, FSI Reporter

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1974      v04 n04 p41  
The harsh life of the old-time mission school and its attempt to "de-Indianize" the Indian, subject of book.

Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood "Geniesh" is a recently released book by Jane Willis, a half-free Indian who grew up at Fort George in the James Bay area of Quebec. It is a personal story about Jane or Geniesh's life in residential school and her attempts to further her education.

The author describes her early childhood with the grandparents who raised her. Geniesh experiences the good things in life and leads a carefree childhood. Her problems begin when she enters the local Anglican residential school.

With shorn and Kerosene soaked hair and oversized clothes Geniesh comes to the realization she is an Indian. The staff treat the children as if they are something less than human. The staff also does their thinking for them and governs their lives. Life becomes rigid. There is a time to eat, to wash, to go to the bathroom, to sleep, to play and to talk.

The children of this school, as in other residential schools, of the time, were forbidden to speak their Native tongue and told to forget their people's teachings. They begin to regard the minister as a god. White people are assumed to be superhuman. In their minds white people are germ-free, sin-free, and lead lives of absolute perfection. They are taught that their people are dirty, gullable, and have very slight chance of ever reaching heaven.

With the sub-standard residential school education she has to work hard to keep up with the other white students in her class. Her hard work and determination pay off and she attains an 'A' average. She is told she must set an example to other students as well as the white people. And yet she is treated like a child without a mind.

The author describes the confusion and the misunderstanding she encounters while at school. After experiencing the dictatorial approaches of the school staff and Indian Affairs personnel, Geniesh has difficulty realizing she is a person. She has learned to associate Indian with inferiority. The predjudices of fellow white students only reinforce this belief.

A summer visit home to Fort George only adds to her confusion. For the first time in her life Geniesh sees the poverty her people live in. She sees but cannot accept many of the things she did as a child. She also receives a marriage proposal from the parents of an eligible bachelor but refuses. She does not want a life of endless child bearing and remaining in Fort George. She wants to complete her high school and take nursing.

Geniesh returns to school but can no longer stand the treatment she receives at the residence. She takes employment as a maid in a tourist camp and meets Bud Willis, the man she eventually marries. In the fall she completes a short dental assistant's course, realizes she must return to high school, and is denied help from Indian Affairs. She then marries Bud.

Jane Willis states that it took her years to overcome her many hangups about being an Indian. She was told to make something of herself and when she did not they said "What do you expect from an "Indian".

The book is well-written. Jane Willis uses Cree dialogue but answers or narrates in such a way that one can understand what has been said.

There is some humour in the book - mainly when she tells of past experiences as a child or as a bewildered teenager in the big city. It is a warm story and she mentions her family and the others at home quite regularly. Anyone who attended residential school will be able to identify with much of her story. And for those who do not understand why so many Indian students dropped out of school it should bring to light many of the injustices students had to put up with. For those who do not understand what religion or fear of God has done to the Indian, the minister's ways and means of Christianizing should be studied. It also shows how the people who "went to help the savages" treated the Indian people.

Today the James Bay people are still living in a manner similar to what James Willis describes in her book.