- My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell by Arthur Bear Chief
By Arthur Bear Chief. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2016. ix + 172 pp. Illustrations, appendixes. $19.95 paper.
Although Arthur Bear Chief ’s My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell is clearly and concisely written, it is a difficult read. His testimony of the psychological, cultural, physical, and sexual abuse he endured as a child at the Old Sun Residential School is as heartbreaking as it is necessary. Bear Chief ’s story adds to the growing body of personal narratives to emerge from the tragic period of Canadian residential schools and American boarding schools built to erase Indigenous cultures through separating children from their communities. Children who attended these schools experienced numerous abuses, a fact that has gained public awareness in more recent decades. Bear Chief ’s narrative—and others like it—importantly brings a personal voice to an experience borne by untold thousands. Bear Chief pushes the genre by including the traumatic aftermath of his abuse, including an unsatisfying legal battle over recompense for his lost childhood.
Different from many similar first-person accounts, Bear Chief ’s text provides many layers of context. First, the preface by collaborator Judy Bedford prepares the reader for the narrative that follows by introducing readers to a man with mood swings produced from revisiting his past. The story itself is both a remarkable example of Indigenous storytelling and proof of the lingering psychological damage of residential/boarding schools on their survivors. Bear Chief opens on himself as an adult writing his memoir and contemplating suicide. He goes on to relive his childhood trauma and subsequent PTSD symptomology, including alcoholism, womanizing, nightmares, and an inability to trust. The afterword by historian Frits Pannekoek discusses Canadian policies established to compensate survivors by devising a callous points-based system used to determine settlement amounts that diminished significantly after lawyers’ fees and taxation. The appendixes contain legal documents from Bear Chief ’s case as well as two impersonal form letters sent by the Anglican Church and the Canadian government apologizing for his treatment. These contexts push conversations concerning residential schools into several arenas, offering readers a more complete view of the schools’ operation and legacy than previously published.
While his story contains happy moments from his residential school experience such as participation in athletics and Sunday chocolate pudding, Bear Chief suggests that positive outcomes include contending with the past on personal and communal levels. At several points, he calls on his fellow survivors to tell their stories as part of a holistic recovery process. My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell both informs uninitiated readers and acts as a [End Page 237] therapy for the smiling boy gracing its cover, the fractured man he became, and nations impacted by a horrifying legacy.
University of Arizona