The revered Nisga’a song “A Mother’s Cry”, is so impenetrable with emotion orating the anguish of empty armed mothers as their children were stolen away to residential school, that counsellors and community supports are available after each performance.
One spectator was once so overcome with emotion, she told the writer, she wanted to shake the priest in the performance even though it was a dance portrayal of historical events.
The song was written more than 30 years ago by a residential school survivor born into the Gitxsan nation and married into the Nisga’a Nation, Camilla Haines.
She wrote the song to chronicle the heartache of loss narrating how First Nations children were removed from their parents and communities. They were placed into the residential school system where many were lost to the demons of substance abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, stolen culture and identity.
The solemn song starts with a heart-wrenching mother’s pleading, “Help me, Help me. They’ve taken my children away. Oh, my poor heart. My poor broken heart, they’ve taken my children away.”
The dance personifies priests arriving in villages dressed in long black robes stealing children from their mother’s arms and taking them away in canoes.
“The parents couldn’t do anything. So I based the song on the fact of the poor mother’s cries,” Haines said.
Cam, as she was nicknamed by a friend in the Port Alberni Residential School where she spent seven years, told The Northern View when she wrote the song that has become synonymous with the Gitmaxmak’ay Nisga’a Society dance (GNSD) group, her mother’s face was prominent in her vision.
An image that has been cemented in her memory and clutched in the sanctum of her being is that of her mother standing alone on the pier in silent sorrow watching the steamship carrying three of her children away across the water. The other parents, grieving in their ways had all left the dock before the ship was too far out. Cam said she and her brothers stood at the ship’s railing watching their mother watching the ship until they could see each other no more.
Cam was on the younger end of twelve siblings. Her older siblings had been taken to a residential school in Edmonton. She was 10 years old when she was taken with two of her brothers who were 12 and 14, to Port Alberni.
“You know, it would have been really hard on my mother because it was three of us at the same time, and then just my younger sister would have been at home with her.”
She can’t remember what she was told about going away, but she does remember the unconquerable sea-sickness that laid her flat during the entire voyage and the kindly ship purser who tried to help her because the person who was supposed to be “supervising” her made no effort to check-in. She said there were many children on the steamer coming from Hazelton, the Nass Valley, Haida Gwaii, and Lax Kw’alaams.
“What they did back in those days, the government threatened … they threatened [parents] that if they ever needed help they wouldn’t help them at all … Some of them, they even threatened they would throw them in jail if they didn’t let their kids go.”
“Parents just accepted the way things were,” she said.
Not everyone was treated or abused equally at the Port Alberni school. She doesn’t know why. Maybe it was because she had already been in Indian Day school for four years and knew English.
“I myself didn’t suffer the abuses that some did. But I knew of a girl getting abused. There wasn’t anything we could do about it.”
Cam was a prolific sports player. She said she played all kinds of sports such as volleyball, softball and basketball at school. She used sports to her advantage. This would allow her an escape from the school and the happenings there.
“[I’d do] anything to get out of the school.”
She was also one of the ones who was allowed home for the summers where she spent looking after the young children when their parents works. Her father was a fisherman and her mom was a net woman.
When she was 17 she realized she was not going to graduate, she approached the school principal with her idea to attend secretarial school.
He assisted in this process and she moved to a girls’ group home in Vancouver. Soon after Cam married a Nisga’a man and they eventually returned to the north.
Moving to the city is what many residential school survivors did, she said because they had lost any connection with their culture and First Nations identity. This exodus is described in “A Mother’s Cry.”
While a literal translation of the song written in Nisga’a is difficult, Cam explained some of the lyrics, “Come with me, Come with me to see my grandfather. Come with me. Come with me to see my grandmother,” which relates to the children relearning the traditions and taking the stolen culture back.
“We will be ok. We will find them. We will bring them home,” Cam said the song speaks to the parents and elders journeying to the cities to find the lost so they can be found, led back home, embraced by ancestral traditions and family love.
The final crescendo of the song celebrates how the lost have been found, returned to their families and are entwining themselves in their lineage and heritage.
Cam wrote the song while she held a position on the Anglican Council for Indigenous People (AICP) in the late 80s.
“I’d hear all the horror stories from people all around Canada and what they went through. It would just affect me hearing all this. So finally, one year I said I have to write a song about this.”
She took the song to her husband’s aunt and uncle who were fluent in Nisga’a and assisted with translation. The song has been held in such solemn esteem it was deemed “sacred” and only the GNS dancers were granted permission to perform the oracle. To uphold the extent of its hallowedness photographing and videoing any performance was strictly prohibited until recently. Cam said she made the change to assist with the truth and bring reconciliation.
“At first the people in the Nass hated it because it brought so much … emotion back to them. But then they accepted it. Now there are villages that have dance groups, and they’ve done similar things because it’s all a part of our history.”
But for right now, she is happy with Nisga’a dancers being the only ones to perform the song as they are invited to other areas and gatherings to perform.
When asked if she hopes the song will carry forward the history of what happened, the composer said, “It opens up the conversation.”
She said all songs fade away eventually, and it’s now up to the second and third generations who are dealing with the consequences of the residential school system and the lost connections to First Nations identity.
“It helps them realize what their grandparents and parents went through, how they suffered so much that they never went back to their villages … but were lost to the cities with drugs and alcohol.”
“I’ve always told them that this is part of our history. You know, it’s emotional, but it happened. So, the story still needs to be told.”
K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist
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