- Closing WordsSports Saved My Life
I remember being seven or eight years old when I saw a film about Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School. Thorpe was one of my heroes. Another one of my heroes was Gordie Howe. I first learned about Howe as a child attending St. Michael's Indian Residential School (Duck Lake). I remember watching Hockey Night in Canada at the student residence, and everyone cheered for either the Montreal Canadians or Toronto Maple Leafs. I disliked both teams. One evening, I heard one of the commentators for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explain that there was a young hockey player from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, named Gordie Howe who played for the Detroit Red Wings. Howe was a fantastic hockey player, and he quickly became another one of my heroes. Growing up, my number-one hero was Fred Sasakamoose, a Cree hockey player from the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation. I had not met Fred at this point in my life, but I had heard stories about him at a very young age, at home with my grandparents. When I arrived at Duck Lake, I learned that Fred had attended the school a few years before. And I also learned about his athletic achievements, particularly his incredible speed, as a student-athlete at the residential school.
On my second day at Duck Lake, I observed a situation that ended up having a profound impact on my life. I noticed that the supervisors called the older boys together and fed them separately. Everybody else—the little boys, medium boys, little girls, medium girls—all ate in the large dining room. The Duck Lake dining hall resembled the eatery portrayed in the film Indian Horse,1 including the occurrence where the supervisors ate in front of the students and were served better food than what was offered to the children. I finished my meal before most of the children and went outside. When I arrived outside, [End Page 318] the older boys were ending soccer practice, and their lunch was being served. Their meal appeared to include much better food than what was provided to the children in the dining hall. It was only my second day at Duck Lake, and I was just a little kid at the time, but at that moment, I came to an important realization—in the Indian residential school system, if you played sports, you were fed better. Simply put, at residential school, student-athletes were fed better than those who were not student-athletes.
I quickly learned that the missionaries enjoyed showing off the Indian kids. I remember the missionaries talking about having a sports house league for nearly every sport; however, soccer and hockey seemed to be taken most seriously. House league teams consisted of four or five little boys, four or five medium boys, and four or five big boys. From this league, the missionaries would pick the best from each age group to travel around and compete against settler teams. At that time, there were no divisions, so we played settler teams from the surrounding areas, such as Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and throughout Saskatoon north. These settler teams comprised the best players from their respective league and club teams, some who competed at the provincial level.
I remember the house league being exceptionally rough, especially after we got into the medium boy's group. We used to physically hurt one another to make the competitive team. These competitive teams traveled to places such as Rosthern, Prince Albert, and Wakaw, among others. When I was a young kid trying to get on that team, the competition was fierce, but there were clear advantages to making the team. We were fed better and got to leave the residential school from time to time. I could not wait to get away from that school any chance I had. We had to adopt animal survival skills, and through the process, we had to learn how to lie. Truth be told, I do not remember telling the truth in confession. It was about survival. I lied about other students in confession. I gossiped. I backstabbed. I had...