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Elder's Perspective: An Interview With Joe And Rose Ewack

Danny Musqua

Rose and Joe Ewack with their granddaughter Carleen Standingready.

Rose and Joe Ewack with their granddaughter Carleen Standingready.

Joe and Rose have been married for 47 years. They have two daughters, Marion Standing Ready and Della Standing Ready, both of whom are married with families of their own. Joe and Rose have lived most of their lives in the Whitebear Reserve and have made their living by working for people in the surrounding area, such as farmers and doctors. Joe was brought up by his Grandfather and Grandmother. He was only two when this occurred and he remembers with great fondness this chapter of his life. He is an Assiniboine by birth. Because he was brought up by a Saulteaux Grandfather, he cannot speak this language but understands it quite completely. So his first languages are Saulteaux and Cree and he speaks these languages fluently, especially Saulteaux. He also understands Sioux. He was in the army in 1941 and in active service. Because he spent eleven months in a German prison camp, he understands the German language quite well and some French. As you can see he is indeed very versatile when it comes to languages.

Rose was born on the Cowessess Reserve and spent most of the early years of life there, accept when she was in school. She attended school in Marieval and then later in Lebret. She is Cree by birth, speaks it fluently and understands Saulteaux completely, even speaking it quite well. Though there have been some negative things that have taken place in these schools, for the most part she remembers those years with fond recollections; it is her belief that many good things came to her because of the training and education she received there.

She remembers two months after they were married; Joe was called to active service in the army. So she spent the next four years working for the farmers and business people in the surrounding area adjacent to the Whitebear Reserve. She did work such as threshing - that means pitching sheaves. Those of you old farmers would know what this means. She used to cut wood and pickets for fire and fence posts. She recalls one time when she cut a whole willow bush. She cut and sharpened the posts and piled them by the road for sale. A passing farmer saw the posts and asked if they were for sale. After a bit of negotiations they agreed upon a price of $45. This is the kind of work she did to keep her children fed and dressed with clothing. To top this she always had a garden.

She remembers after the war when her husband returned, they lived in a one-room shack plastered with clay. Of course those who remember those old shacks will remember the weather. True to form, it would rain for three or four days every spring and fall and the plaster got wet and began to fall off inside and outside. They would pile this together, add some straw and more clay and plaster the shack again. This was a yearly chore.

Rose: From as early as I can remember, we were taught in school and from our parents, to can our food and I still do this today. My children have gone to be educated and of course married. I now have my Grandchildren, whom I keep from time to time to help my children, a task my husband and I enjoy deeply. I think having my Grandchildren is the greatest satisfaction I have. My husband and I always look forward to these moments with them. We have a very good relationship with our children. We have to raise our children the traditional way along with our Christian upbringing. Walking the middle road, and taking the best of both worlds in trying to give our children the best chance to meet and adapt to this continually changing world. I believe we did very well.

We worked to make a living all our lives. When Joe was in the army, I received a small pension and it was never enough. That's why I had to work all the time. In those times, we lived off the land and if you didn't work or hunt and trap, you just simply starved. Today, well everybody gets welfare. I don't think that was right for governments to do that. Take away their way of life and just feed them. That's why we have so much trouble in our reserves today. Drinking, violence, and child and elderly neglect; people don't really have anything to do but to collect welfare. And I think that will be taken away someday too, and maybe we will be made to work for it. And the people will find it hard because many have lost the will to help themselves. The government will have no one to blame but themselves for doing this to these people. The way things are right now, it's not going to get better, it's only going to get worse. We need so much help to change things and we are not getting it.

Joe: I remember the days when everybody used to trap and hunt for a living. Everybody helped and the people were proud. Maybe even a little poor, but they looked after themselves and this was good for them. Gradually all our trapping lands and hunting lands were taken away from us and given to white trappers. Hunting and game laws were forced upon us, destroying our way of self-support that gave us our pride and dignity. Moreover, that's how we began to lose our rights and we are losing today the little bit of rights we have left. By this I mean Treaty Rights.

I went into the war believing that I was preserving these rights and freedom that we enjoyed here in this land. I sure found different when, we came home to find out we didn't have the same freedom as the white people that joined. And many of us got little recognition for our contributions in the war. We did not get our lands like white veterans. Instead, we received Reserve Land that is commonly owned by everybody in that Band. Anyway, I left for active service in 1941. I joined first in 1939. I was told I was too young and then again in 1940. I passed my medical both times. I was told I was in excellent shape. Anyway to make a long story short, I joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and saw action on D-Day and shortly thereafter, was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Our task had gone too deep into the enemy sector and we got surrounded. After we ran out of ammunition we were forced to surrender. Many of my fellow soldiers were killed even while surrendering. I thank God I was lucky because I was at the back of the pack when they started machine gunning my friends. Maybe it's because I was wounded and fell a bit behind because of my wounds. I was wounded by a bomb blast.

When we were taken prisoners we were ordered to only tell our name, rank, and serial number. We were treated cruelly and even tortured and many died to honor that code of silence. It was the only thing we had left to keep our honor and some means of resistance.

We were part of the British Eastern Task Force. Assigned Juno Sector on D-Day in Normandy. I remember on that day, I was carrying spare parts and ammunition for a machine gun that was carried by a fellow Indian Soldier. I can't recall his first name off hand, but he was a Gardipy from Duck Lake. When we got there we were running for the beaches and we were under terrible fire. Somehow the bombs did not hit the bunkers and gun emplacements. So we had to fight every inch of the way and silence those guns and machine gun nests and bunkers.

On the beach, my friend got hit. He yelled, "I'm hit. " I checked. He got hit on his pack belt. I told him, 'It's on your belt." He started to run and everywhere, we were being told to keep moving. As he started to run again, he got hit again. I saw him go down. I believe he got killed instantly by that shot.

Elder's Perspective: An Interview With Joe And Rose Ewack

Danny Musqua

When I got to shore I was with my group and unit Sargent. We continued in land to attacked a machinegun bunker. A German soldier poked his head out and the Sargent yelled for me to shoot him. So I shot him. For a moment I had a hard time to pull that trigger, realizing that I was about to kill another human being. And the Sargent yelled at me to keep shooting, as they stuck their heads out. I shot another three more that way. We moved a little behind the machine gun-nest because they kept right on shooting. I guess by this they didn't realize we were behind them. A German came out of the bunker with a stick bomb. The Sargent yelled, "Hurry he's got a stick bomb!" I shot him and he fell back into the bunker still holding the stick bomb, which exploded and that silenced the machine gun. I was told we should receive a medal for that but because we were taken prisoner for some reason that has not happened.

A few days later I was wounded, and taken prisoner. We were moved to Caen, where we were interrogated and treated for our wounds. From here we were moved to Rennes.

We used to receive very little rations most times - two small pieces of black bread and a bowl of soup and it was mostly water.

For the rest of the time we were used for prison slave labor. Through all this we had very little to eat and no proper clothing and very little rest. Sometimes we were so hungry that we would eat grass and leaves in order to get nourishment. Many of us didn't have jackets to wear because the Germans took them away from us. At nights and even during the days, four of us would sit back to back to keep warm. We had to do all kinds of little things to survive, many died.

From Rennes we were moved to Charlons-Marne. From June 30 to July 31, 1944 we were taken by boxcar to Charlons-Marne. We were shut in these boxes for 32 days with nothing to eat. We weren't allowed to come out. It was torture and it was terrible. When I was taken prisoner I was 180lbs. At the end of the war I was only 110lbs.

From there we were moved to Nancy and then Metz and we ended up in Chemnitz where we were released. Through all this we were forced to work on airfields, railways, and burial detail.

We were always moving because the allies were always close behind them. Towards the end they didn't punish us or treat us as badly as they did at first. That was because they knew they were losing the war and were probably afraid of reprisals, from allies. During those days, there were dead soldiers and dead people every where. Cats with bulldozer would come in and make ditches and we would lay down the dead in these ditches where the cats push the dirt over them in mass graves. It used to smell awful all the time.

I believe because I was used to a hard life in my early days as a boy living on the reserve, that helped me survive the harsh life of a prisoner of war. Many of my comrades were not so lucky, many died over there. I believe I did my best. I did not beg for mercy. I stood my ground, standing straight and I held my head high at all times. I came to fight for the freedom I believed in and loved.

That is how I fought my war. They never broke me, and even today I would never allow anyone to do that to me. They would have to kill me first. That's how sacred I regard my pride and dignity as a free man. And if I was asked to do it again I would do it all over again. Even being treated the way we were during the war and after the war with very little recognition for the pain and suffering we went through and I experienced. I say once again I would still do it all over again. That's how much my freedom and the good air of mother earth means to me.

One day one of the guards told us we might be released today. The next day we woke to find no guards around. We got out of that prison and we started toward the west where our allies were and the first soldiers we met were the Americans. They were having their meal when we came upon them. They were willing to give us their dinners but they were stopped from doing so because they were told we would get sick from all that good food. Instead, we were put on a recovery diet. That day was like heaven to me. Taking a bath for the first time in so many months, new clothes and a bed to sleep on is something I'll never forget. After the war I returned home to continue to work hard to raise my family and still work to this day.

Joe worked as a farm hand and labourer and then moved on to being a Band Manager for the Whitebear Indian Band for eleven years. He then worked for another 12 years with the Kenosee Provincial Park. Joe is now semi-retired but continues to be active in Band affairs wherever he is asked to help. He continues to make a big garden every year for himself and his children and grandchildren. Joe and Rose enjoy travelling and going to Pow-wows.

Rose continues to be active as a Senator in the F.S.I.N. and S.T.I.W.C. (Saskatchewan Treaty Indian Women's Council). She worked twelve years for the Province and eleven years as Community Health Representative (CHR) for the Whitebear Band. She has also been president of the Catholic Women's Group on the Reserve for 20 years.

Rose and Joe's accomplishments are too many to do justice to in this story. But as we say in our Saulteaux language: We salute greatness and a supremely great man and warrior and father and grandfather. A great lady, mother and grandmother, A-how. We salute and our honor as a nation builder goes with you, and bless you as your children from the heart of our nation.

As for me, I consider this a very special privilege to be in the presence of greatness. My wife and I thank you for treating us like one of your children. Again A-how, sekwa-me-kwa-etch. Which means we salute and thank you on behalf of the members of the "Bear-Clan".