Deep on the rez sat an old house, it had been there for 50 years. A house aged in its short history with many stories to tell. Today however, would be the beginning of a new story, one that begins in anger…
The door of the old house flew open and a young Josh Diabo stormed out, tears running down his face. He was quickly followed by his father Frank. “I’m telling you that you need to get a job,” said Frank. “How are you supposed to survive in this world if you can’t make a paycheck, huh?” “I worked my ass off for this family.” He yelled. “Even after your mom left…I still worked hard to put food on the table.”
But Josh determined spun on his heal, “I want to sing dad, that’s who I am. I want to share my stories with the world.” “You’re dreaming, how can you make money singing. Most singers I know barely make a living. Is that what you want to be, poor?” “I’m going to do what I want and you can’t change that.” he turned and ran into the forest. Frank called out to him but it was too late, the boy was gone.
Frank, frustrated and angry stepped back into the house slamming the door behind him.
Frank, tired, sat down at his kitchen table. He regretted losing his temper. A familiar voice broke the silence, it was Franks’s father Paul; “looks like you and Josh have a lot to say to each other?” “Look, Dad, I just want him to take some responsibility with his life, he’s not going to be 16 forever, he needs a real job.” “And sharing our stories is not important? Said Paul” “Dad I want him to be able to survive, to do better than we did, that’s all.” “So being happy and doing what you love isn’t a real job?” “That’s not the point.” “But it is, Josh is following his heart and that is something many of us were never allowed to do.” “What do you mean? Said Frank.”
Paul Diabo leaned back in his seat, pausing, he knew that he would have to share this story someday, he closed his eyes, after a few moments he began to speak……
As he ran deeper into the forest, Josh felt the ringing of his father’s voice in his ears. Running away had become a regular thing whenever he and his father fought. His mom left when he was just a child so it had just been him, his father and grandfather for the longest time. Eventually, he came to a fork in the path, wiping the tears from his eyes a sudden mist began to form around him and in that mist came a distantly familiar voice.
Josh took his first steps down the path where the familiar voice had come from. As he followed the path the voice became stronger, clearer, the mist led him to a clearing where he saw a man tending to a fire with a skin hut nearby. “I have been expecting you, said the man”. He looked to be in his 20’s, tall and well built, he reminded Josh of an ironworker. A job that many of the men in his community did, there wasn’t a bridge or skyscraper in the area that didn’t involve Mohawk ironworkers. They were known to be the men who were without fear. “What do you mean you have been expecting me?” “Well, Josh..you came down that path when people come down that path they often have a heart that needs some help.” Josh looked back and he could no longer see the path that led him here.
“I don’t understand, how do you know who I am?”
“I know you, Josh..because I was you once you, a man standing at a fork in the road trying to make a decision.” “What’s the fire for?” he asked “It’s for the sweat lodge. We can ask the spirits for guidance, and they can share their knowledge. It looks like you can use a sweat.” The man stripped down to his shorts and entered the lodge. “You’re welcome to join me, Josh, you might find the answers you’re looking for or you might not, it all depends on you.” Josh stood there for a moment, what was all this about he thought, after a few moments he disrobed and entered the lodge.
Back at the house, Paul began his story. “I was 10 when they came for the children in our community, they told our parents that the government had made laws allowing them to take us to schools to be educated. I remember crying when they ripped me from my mother’s arms, the RCMP was also there making sure no one got in the way. I remember one father being beaten up by the cops when they took his daughter. She was around my age so I tried to stay close to her when they loaded us onto the buses, I spoke to her in our language to try to soothe her fears, that’s when I felt the anger of the men on the bus. We speak English here not that dirty language, you better learn that quickly!
The bus ride seemed to go on for hours, it was near dusk when we eventually reached the school, I remember being hungry but that disappeared when I saw what was to be our new home. “The school itself was huge, I remember being terrified and missing my parents. The people that worked there all wore black robes and crosses around their necks. Most of them carried switches which they used whenever one of us stepped out of line like when we spoke our own language.
They finally fed us once we got inside, the bishop went over the rules while we ate, we were told to give up our savage ways and salvation was through Jesus. My friend Becky the girl from my community ended up in the same dorm. They constantly shouted at us, telling us that only God could save us from our savage ways. They cut our hair and cold showers, many of us cried when they cut our hair, I can remember the nuns saying how dirty we looked.
The first night we were forced to say prayers before going to bed if we refused we felt the switch. After awhile began to be that the nuns holding those switches enjoyed hurting us. Many of us cried that first night, I remembered how my Tota would share stories with me before bed and how sad she would be to see me with short hair. The first night I remember a nun come and take Becky away. She was brought back about an hour later, she was crying and I saw bruises on her face, the next day I asked her what happened, all she said was he hurt me. I remember asking myself, where the hell did they bring us.
In the lodge Josh sat across from the healer, he was familiar with the sweat lodge, his Raksotha (Grandfather) performed many sweats in the community, everyone was welcome whenever he poured a sweat. As he poured water over the grandmothers and grandfathers he asked: “Josh, please sing us a song to welcome the spirits of the 4 directions”. He handed Josh a drum, Josh hesitated for a moment. “How did you know…” “That you like to sing, write stories”? “Yes” “A little bird told me” he laughed. As Josh took the drum, a song he had been working on came together in his heart, it was an honor song for elders, elders like his grandfather.
For the first time in a long time Josh sang without any fear or limitations, he sang loudly and proudly so loud that the spirits themselves came to listen and pray. As the water fell across the stones and lodge got hotter. Tears filled the healer’s eyes for he had never a more beautiful song, filled with sadness, and pain but also a song filled with strength and perseverance. “The spirits have heard your call, they ask you that in order to achieve what you seek you must first lift the fear from your heart, this fear only holds you back. As the lodge got hotter, Josh asked the spirits to lift his fear and pain to take it away. And it was at that moment, that Josh received an answer.
Paul sipped on his tea, images flashed through his mind like wildfire, remembering the schools were taking its toll. He had never spoken about the schools before today, so much horror happened there. If those walls could speak, they would tell of the great evils committed by the people there. As he put his tea down “where was I. The first two years at the school were the worst, I was 12 now and the priests and nuns continued their acts of violence. Cutting our hair was pale in comparison to the beatings we got, I felt the sting of their switches several times a week but it was the attention of the priests and bishops that even to this day made me cringe. So many souls went through that place, I went through hell for 8 years” And when we finally left many of us had forgotten who we were.
Frank bowed his head, tears began to flow down his face. “How….how did you survive that place for 8 years?” “Many of us didn’t; some tried to escape but died trying to make it back to their communities. Tuberculosis was rampant in the schools which took many to the spirit world, even when they had to expand the cemetery they still did nothing. We weren’t even human in their eyes, hell the dogs were treated better.” Frank could feel himself getting angry, he knew of the schools but little of what went on there, to hear a first-hand account from his own father filled him with a sadness he did not know how to deal with. “What happened to your friend Becky?” Paul sat back, the question felt like a sharp blow, tears began to fill his eyes. “The sickness took her in our 5th year, I was there when she passed on to the spirit world. Her last words to me were..” “It’s okay Paul, they can’t hurt me anymore then she was gone……”
The heat of the sweat lodge had become almost unbearable but Josh continued to sing, the beat of the drum brought happiness to the ears of the spirit. The beats became so powerful that they travelled beyond the lodge and deep into the spirit world where the past, present and future became the one. At those same time elders from the distant past who were holding their own sweat began to hear Josh’s song. One elder said in traditional Mohawk, “this song, it calls to me, the singer is young but has a strong heart, he will be a great storyteller. “He lacks confidence said another elder.” “Perhaps we should join him said the third, his song is the story of our people in the distant future. Let us add our voices so he can finish the story.”
As the three elders began to sing, Josh felt his heart begin to grow, it was as if the Great Spirit herself had lifted the pain and doubt from his heart. At that moment Josh was transported to a longhouse, the three elders were there standing with him, all were smiling. One of the elders walked up to him and put her hand on his chest, “You carry our traditions young warrior, never forget who you are and never stop singing.” All three elders smiled at him and then they were gone. Josh was then transported back to the field he was in earlier, a familiar voice bringing him back to reality. “That was some sweat, huh Josh, did you find the answers you were looking for?” Josh smiled “Yes I did and I know now what I need to do. Thank you, sorry but I never got your name. “My name is Paul, and your father is waiting for you.” Then the mist swirled up and Paul disappeared.
Josh smiled and headed back to the house.
Frank leaned back in his chair, tears flowing down his face. He quietly watched his father as he stared out the window. When he finally spoke the words came out filled with sorrow. “Thank you for sharing that story I know it wasn’t easy but thank you. I now know why you told it to me.” Paul smiled. “It’s our traditions that make us who we are, they are the story of our journey, a journey of pain and sorrow but also one of perseverance and strength. Those men and women in black may have scarred me but they did not break me. Josh is just continuing the story and someday he will pass them on to his children and that’s how we continue. By sharing our stories, by remembering those souls like Becky’s, our stories will live forever.
Frank got up and hugged his father, he felt closer to him now more than ever, the story brought father-son closer. “I love you, dad!” “Love you too son, Josh is coming, go see your son.” As Frank turned to head out the door, he took one last look at his father, Paul smiled and nodded and then disappeared into the mist.” As Josh approached the house he found his father waiting, Frank smiled and spread out his arms and embraced his son. Josh began to speak but stumbled “dad…I” “It’s okay son, I understand that you need to follow your heart and no matter what I will support you.” Josh burst into smiles. “I have a new song for you to listen to, wanna hear it?”
“Sure, let’s walk to see your grandfather, I’m sure he would love to hear it.” They walked down the path to a clearing till they came to a headstone. Dusk was setting in and they could see the evening star appear. Soon the sky was filled with stars, Josh held up his drum and the beat began. Frank watched his son, as he saw the happiness his eyes a thought came to him…sing my son sing!