“The first day I walked into that residential school is when the anger started,” said Sarah Jerome, a Gwich’in elder from Fort McPherson who was taken from her home at the age of seven to attend residential school in Aklavik.
“When I left at the end of 12 years, I left residential school in a rage. I was ready to kill somebody.”
She recalls the experience of being removed from her parents vividly.
“Fort McPherson to Aklavik was a 40-minute flight, but to me it was halfway around the world, because I wasn’t able to see my parents for 10 months of the year,” said Jerome.
She was speaking to the Inuvik Drum following a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claims Agreement.
The topic of what it means to be proud to be Gwich’in was a theme during the event.
Jerome took years to figure that out and reconcile her experience at residential school.
“Over the years I’ve come to realize that there were some benefits to being in the residential school, for example getting an education, and I eventually became a teacher so that was a benefit to me,” she said.
She used that education to work for her people in language and culture.
“I eventually became very proud of who I was by taking back my power, taking back my power and saying no more, I’m not going to bow down to any of the non-aboriginal people anymore, I’m going to take back my power and I’m going to work for my people and I’m going to take back my language and culture,” said Jerome. “And that’s what I’ve done, as an educator and now as an elder.”
She now teaches a life skills course to youth, during which she poses the question of what it means to be proud to be Gwich’in.
“A lot of them really don’t know because of the intergenerational effects of residential school,” she said.
After her experience, Jerome had to work on forgiveness and becoming colourblind.
“That was the most traumatic experience I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said about being taken from her home to attend school in Aklavik.
“I’ve generally dealt with (issues stemming from residential school) but I have not yet to deal with those two years where I was taken away from my loving, caring family, speaking my first language and living on the land.”
She gives youth a history lesson on what resilient people their ancestors were and how proud they were to be hunters, trappers, fishermen and more.
“Then I say to them, ‘What are you doing now?’” said Jerome.
“A lot of them live in town, they’re into drugs and alcohol, so I tell them how are you going to change that, how are you going to be proud to be Gwich’in? It’s not only one thing. Eventually you’re going to have a lot of experiences where you’re going to be proud to do certain things in your life, and eventually you’ll be proud to be Gwich’in.”
For Jerome, pride has come in ticking things off her bucket list lately. She made a speech at Harvard last year and also acted in the Gwich’in film The Sun At Midnight.
“I’m very proud of my accomplishments as an educator and all the different thing I’ve done in my life,” said Jerome.
“I think I’ve come around full circle and I’ve learned to look back now and say thank you to the residential school for providing an education for me so that I was able to pursue all these things that I did.”
Her challenge now is hearing impairment.
“I refuse to give up on account of my hearing,” she said.
She hopes to help youth discover their identity and help her people move on from the lasting effects from events of the past.
“That residential school intergenerational effect has to stop with them now,” she said.