Through healing and poetry, Kamloops survivor denied residential school ‘the satisfaction that it killed me’

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

June 4, 2021

By Dennis Saddleman and Matt Galloway

[The Current on CBC Radio One, with audio]

Matt Galloway: Deep generational wounds have been opened yet again in this country, survivors, those who love them and many more Canadians are grieving. This week after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc first Nation announced, a preliminary report shows the remains of 215 children unmarked on the site of the former Kamloops Indian residential school. Dennis Saddleman attended that same school for 11 years beginning in 1957. And the news wasn’t easy for him to process. But he has been reaching out, connecting with friends and continuing the work he started as a child to heal and stay, in his words, in balance. Part of that is through his poetry. You might have heard his voice on this show earlier this week, reading his powerful poem, Monster, about his experience at residential school. Dennis’s mother was Nlka’pamux and his father was Syilx and Dennis Saddeman is with me from Merrett, British Columbia. And please note that some of what we are about to talk about may be distressing for some listeners. Dennis, good morning.


MG: How are you doing?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: Oh, I feel a little bit rested up now. It was pretty tiring and pretty shook up there. I had to remind myself to look after myself here. You know, we all had that the power and energy have been used. And so I make sure I eat and I drink water. And I smudged and I washed myself, ask the water spirits to help me. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

MG: When you heard this news that came out of Kamloops, why was it important for you to go there to gather with other survivors there?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: That school there was like it was part of my life. I felt so, so sad and everything there. And I wanted to hug everyone and those children. And I was thankful to the ancestors, you know, thankful to myself, sir, that I survived, you know, and. There’s a time in there that I came pretty close to to death one time. They had a swimming pool there in front of the old building there and the supervisor says everybody are getting ready, they are going to get to go swimming. This is like my first few weeks at the residence school, so I didn’t know how to swim. So I laid on the grass near the swimming pool. I was enjoying the sun and next thing the supervisor came along and he grabbed me and he lifted me up. He had my swim instructor and he brought me to the swimming pool and he threw me in, in the deepest part. And I just remember kicking and I remember the whitewater’s and the bubbles and the water making that swirling and twirling sound in my ear and and I was sinking and I blacked out and they come to someone was pushing on my chest and I opened my eyes and there’s a older boy, and he says, Are you OK? I said, Yeah, I’m OK. And then he got up and he walked away. And it seemed like I never seen him again. And I was thinking to myself after, I wonder if that was my angel that came from the ancestors. And I’m sure glad that I made it through that incident of drowning. You know, my grandfather, he always taught me how to speak our language. He spoke to me every single day there in our language that the [unintelliglbe] language. So when I went to that school I still had that language in my head, and then we were going down by the pond and I seen a snake crawling on the ground and I got excited. I started running out to that snake. And there are some boys near me and I was speaking in our language and [ indistict speech], which means look at the snake. And next thing I knew, somebody grabbed back of my collar and I looked, it was the supervisor. He was he was angry and really angry. And he slapped me in the head. And then he told me, go back to the dormitory. That’s our sleeping place. You know, so he told me to stand beside his door. And this was 10 o’clock in the morning. So I went back to the dormitory and stood by his door. Lunch time, went by no lunch. I didn’t have no supper and then run about eight o’clock at night or was bedtime. So all the kids come in to the dormitory. He saw me stand by the door. He says, Oh, yeah, I gotta deal with you, too. He said, one of the boys, go to washroom to go get a bar of soap. He told everybody else to stand around and watch my punishment. And then the supervisor, he grabbed the back of my head with my hair pulled. And so my face would be facing up in the air. And then he put that bar of soap in my mouth and he just rubbed it, you know, he just rubbed it right into my teeth and into my tongue and I was gagging for air. And to this day and every time I see a bar of soap and I can remember the taste and I can remember the flashback.

MG: I’m so sorry for what you have been through. I mean, it’s awful.


MG: But you also, you speak out about this and now that you speak with students and you talk to others about what you went through and it’s incredibly difficult and obviously only say what you’re comfortable in saying. But why is it important for you to speak out about this and tell those stories?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: You know, I found out there’s a lot of people that have never heard of, the residential school before, especially from different nations or the non natives and our young people. I was thinking of our young people, there are a lot of them there, maybe they’re their parents or grandparents were in silence or they will not share their stories. I got to reach out to them there and tell them what the residential school is all about and show them the real picture of what happened to us or the physical abuse and even our spiritual abuse. And, you know, it took me a long, long time to really say that I was sexually abused. And when that happened, my abuser told me to don’t tell anybody about this. If you do, I know where your family lives. I’m going to go over there and I’m going to hurt them. So for two or three days later, you know, I was really, really feeling dirty, really feeling ashamed. And I wanted to go and disappear. So I went down to the river and I stood beside the river and the river was swift. The river was deep and and the river was dark. And I was standing there and I say, River, river, if I jumped in would you swallow me? River never said anything to. All it did was just flow and flow and flow. I went back to the school there and just continued to suffer and more and more. And then after my sexual abuse, sir, I thought, gee, maybe I’ll try and tell somebody. So I went to the principal and I knocked on his door. He says, come in, I went. He told me to sit down. So I sat down. And I told the school principal there about my supervisor, he sexually abused me. It happened in the dormitory. And the principal there, he just looked at me there and he says that I was telling lies about a good man. So that made me feel real betrayed and abandoned. So I walked away there. I believe my sexual abuse there, about nobody believe in me. So I went into silence and I was just going to strugglesand shame and anger and rage. And I went home and right away I drank and I did drugs and I was really bad. And I was going out in the streets, staggering down the street, and I sleep in the back alley. Slept beside the dumpster. And when I wake up, I eat my breakfast at the dumpster to eat my food. I want save all my money for a bottle. You know, people there look at me with disgust and looking at a drunken Indian on the sidewalk. And I was so, so far down in the bottom of the bottle, and that I was at the bottom of a junk pile and took a knife and I stabbed myself on my right cage, my rib cage. And I even took a rifle and I put it under my chin.

MG: And what was it that saved you? What was it that I mean, you say you were at the bottom of the junk pile. What was it that pulled you out of that?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: I see myself sort of like crawling towards an open grave and whatnot, in a [unintelligible]. And I said to where I’m going to have to turn my life around, change my direction, change my path. And so it seemed like I was grabbing a steering wheels and I was trying to turn my life and I was growing up. Come on. You can change. You can change. You know, I didn’t want to give the resident school the satisfaction that it killed me. I didn’t want to give the satisfaction to my sexual abuser that he killed me. So I just put my foot down and said OK. So I was really, really, really hard and funny funny. When I got up on my feet where I had to learn who I was, then I realised all this hate, this rage and the violence, it didn’t belong to me. So when I went in my healing journey there, my supporters, my healers, they helped me to give that hate, that rage and that violence, my sexual abuse, all what I was carrying, give it back to the residential school. It didn’t belong to me.

MG: Can I ask you about poetry and what poetry has helped you do? I mean, I want to play a little bit of a poem that you wrote that we played the other day on the radio. But what when you started writing poetry in that healing journey, what did it give you?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: It was like a healing tool, you know, I was able to reach into myself to reach my inner child. And then I learnt how to get connected with it. And then I learnt how to how to use words or because words they can hurt or they can heal, depends how you use it.

MG: You read a poem for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013, and the poem is called Monster. And it’s ncredibly powerful. We played the poem earlier this week on the programme, but I want to play a little bit of it now and just ask you a bit about it. This is your poem, Monster.


I hate you, residential school. I hate you.

You’re a monster. A huge hungry monster built with steel bones, built with cement flesh.

You’re a monster built to devour innocent native children.

You’re a cold hearted monster cold. That’s the cement floors. You have no love, no gentle atmosphere. Your ugly face grooved with red bricks, your monster eyes glare from grimy windows. Monster I saw evil. Monster eyes watching terrified children covered with shame.

I hate you, residential school. I hate you.

You’re a slimy monster oozing is in the shadows of my past. Go away. Leave me alone. You’re following me. Follow me wherever I go. You’re in my dreams. In my memories. Go away monster. Go away. I hate you following me.

I hate you, residential school I hate you.

MG: That’s your poem, Monster, which as I mentioned, was read at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013. When we played this this week on the programme, we had so many people who commented about how powerful it was. I just want to read one of the emails that we got. This comes from Rebecca Horn, who wrote from Charlottetown: “As I turned on my car after dropping my children off. At their day-care Monster by Dennis Saddleman was playing on The Current, tears welled as Dennis Saddleman’s voice painted a dark, ugly picture of a tortured child. The stark contrast of the happy, loving scene I had just experienced to that of a young child within the residential schools made the mother in me ache for those innocent children broken and destroyed by those atrocities”. How do you know when you have made a difference with the poetry that you write?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: I remember I wrote that poem about the year 2000. You know, I’m talking about that huge red brick building when I was standing in front of her with my parents or when I first arrived at the residence school when I was six years old. And I guess the reason why I thought it was a monster, we’re standing there and all of a sudden these double doors opened and these black creatures came out. You know, there’s about five of them, there were all wearing black robes and they looked like black creatures and the face was pale and [unintelligible] and I got really scared and they came out of those double doors and, you know, that’s when that word monster came into my head. And those black creatures are they dragged me and dragged me through the double doors and soon as I walked through those doors I felt like I was that was it. The monster was eating me up. That’s why I wrote that poem there. So it still wakes me up. Shake me up when I go back there, you know, because it’s like, there’s the presence of the spiritual children around there when you’re walking by the building or you’re walking on the lawn, there seem like there’s a presence somewhere that the children would be watching or, you know, so it was like of playing and a lot of singing and and I just wanted to be there for those beautiful children there. Pray, sing. And sometimes I see some people even dance.

MG: I know that you wrote a poem for us that this is something that you wrote this week after everything unfolded in the wake of that discovery there. Can you tell me a little bit about the poem before you read it?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: I just I wrote this and I was thinking, you know, like what our people is going through right now. What happens to all the hurt and the pain and the anger and the rage? And I was kind of hoping that I could reach out and no matter who you are, if you know me or don’t know me, I wanna be there to, you know, hug everybody and to say to everybody, everybody’s in my thoughts. You’re in my prayers. And I just want to say that you’re not alone. We’re all together in this and we will rise and we will stand together. So I wrote this one here. It’s called The Drum Goes Bang:.

The drum goes bang.

The bang goes everywhere. It’s time to sing. It’s time to pray.

That drum goes bang, bang, bang, bang. Join the circle, sacred circle. Bring your medicine. Bring your spirit.

The drum goes bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Dance for me. Dance for everyone. Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, dance. Ruffle your feathers. Move your moccasins and keep the beat. Beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

MG: It’s Dennis Saddleman and the Drum Goes Bang. This has been a really a really hard week for so many people and for you. I know and you talked about the hurt and the anger and the pain and the rage that people feel. How are you taking care of yourself?

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: I learnt from my healing journey and I learnt from the elders and and when you’re drinking water that you just, you know, prayed to the water, to the water spiritl, that they when they enter you, they help cleanse you and help to give you the energy. And then if I had a choice, I can go up to a tree and hug a tree. The tree, can take all my emotions, my hurts and whatever. The tree will bring it back, go down to the roots there and give it back to the earth. And then some people, they would even they can stand in the wind when it’s really windy. They ask the wind there to take away your hurt and emotions are so call it my church. So I can go out in the forest and pray at my church out there. And our ancestors are out there, always watching us and they’re always inside of me. So that’s what I do.

MG: There are a lot of people who have turned to your poetry for comfort and I think for some strength over the course, certainly, of this week and long before as well. I’m really grateful that you were generous enough to share some of that with us. And I’m grateful to have the chance to talk to you, Dennis, thank you very much.

DENNIS SADDLEMAN: Everybody out there, take care of yourself and remember all those beautiful children. Thank you. [Indigenous speech].

MG: Dennis Saddleman is a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. You can find the audio of his poem, Monster, at and on Twitter @TheCurrentCB. And if you are struggling with this news or what we have talked about here, the Indian residential school crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1 866 925 4419. The CBC News is next. And then there are a lot of musicians in Canada right now wondering how they will pay their rent. Lockdowns are lifting, but slowly getting a beer spilt down your back at a live show, for a lot of people still seems like a long way off. In six minutes, some industry veterans are here to talk about how Canada’s music industry is coping and what awaits them on the other side of this pandemic. I’m Matt Galloway you’re listening to The Current at CBC Radio One.