Tears flow as Ahousaht performs cleansing ceremony at former day school site

Ahousaht, BC

It’s been more than a year since one of the two former day school buildings that stood on Ahousaht’s front beach was demolished. With the debris removed and the ground bulldozed, community members gathered on a sunny April 19 to let go of the painful memories of the Ahousaht Day School.

The twin white and green day school buildings were built on the south end of Ahousaht’s main beach sometime after the Ahousaht Indian Residential School burnt down in 1940. Dozens of Ahousahts attended school there in the more than 40 years that it operated, many reported physical, verbal, mental and sexual abuse.

“I went down there thinking I’ll just be part of it, didn’t think anything of it,” said Darleen Dick, Ahousaht drug and alcohol counsellor.

But then they called all former day school students to stand in a circle and placed a sprig of spruce in their hands.

“When they started chanting, that’s when all the memories came flooding back,” said Dick.

Darleen, now 69, recalled abuse she suffered as a child in Ahousaht Day School by both teachers and a community member.

“I didn’t think it would hit us that hard, but it hit some of us hard,” she said.

Wally Thomas, a lifelong resident of Ahousaht, works at the holistic centre known as Cha-Chum-Hi-Yup-Tiichmis as a cultural support worker. He organized the cleansing ceremony under the guidance of Ahousaht elder Dave Frank.

With former day school students and young people from Maaqtusiis School looking on, Dave, Wally and others cleared the site of negative energy with eagle down, cedar branches and prayer.

“There was a ‘letting go’ ceremony, the Yaht Yahta, what we do at memorial potlatches,” said Thomas.

Following the ceremony, Darleen said they were given a cup of traditional medicine to drink. When that was done they were instructed to throw the cup and spruce sprig in the fire.

“It was a big relief – it was like, this is not mine to carry. ‘I am a free woman’, is what I thought,” she added.

She shared that her abusers are long gone and she vowed not to carry the burden of what happened anymore.

Thomas said a similar ceremony was conducted the month before at the grounds of the former residential school site in Ahousaht.

“I see the hurt being released and the healing beginning,” said Thomas, adding there were a lot of tears.

Thomas said there is a lot of suffering in the community as people deal with grief, loss and trauma.

“Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain, but we’re here to help them take a step in healing,” he added.

Dick says drugs and alcohol is an ongoing problem with a small segment of the community. There were people already indulging but since the pandemic started, some are drinking more heavily.

“We do our best to talk to them, to offer help,” she said.

“We really need to change,” continued Dick.

She worries that the kids will think it’s normal to see people like this.

“It’s not normal,” she said.

Ahousaht’s Holistic Centre staff offer help, including an upcoming five-day retreat at Ahousaht’s Aa-uk-nook Lodge for people needing to detox or give their bodies a break from intoxicants.

“There’s willingness, even if it’s just for five days, that’s a big plus,” said Dick.

During retreats, the people will do cultural healing practices like sweats along with western programs. She says there is room for 18 at each retreat and this time they have 10 people signed up.

“Sometimes we have too many but we’ll never turn people away,” she said.

“Our goal is to bring healing to our nation,” said Thomas. “Today was a good start.”

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