Only The Devil Speaks Cree

Pamela Matthews

2003, 32:25 minutes, Colour & b/w, English


More than a century ago, little innocent Indian children were taken from their homes, their families, their traditions - their life. They were locked away in residential schools far from home. It was an attempt (by the government and the church) to assimilate them and Christianize them - in effect - to educate the Indian out of them. In reality, it was an education in abuse, intolerance and extreme loneliness.
The sign reads: "Residential School #80". As little Sadie is shoved through the large wooden doors, Nuns, seeming larger that life, surround her! They speak a language she does not understand. Confused, she asks in her language: Tanegi Nimama? Tanegi? She is thrown to the floor, her mouth taped shut. A voice bellows out: "Only the Devil Speaks Cree!!" Hands remove her little moccasins and suddenly, her traditional Jingle Dress fades away and she is wearing the drab uniform of the residential school. A huge bible lands in front of her - then, to her horror - large dull garden shears chop off her long, beautiful braids. They fall to the floor in a cloud of dust as a huge broom sweeps them away. Little Sadie's life has been changed forever .
Northern Ontario, 1956: In the dark of night, we see little bare feet running - running. The sound of steady breathing, an owl hoots - a steady rhythmic heartbeat. Little Sadie, seven years old, glances behind her fearfully - sweat pouring down her dirty face, her eyes bright and alert. She sees the beams of the searchlights - and runs faster. But the little girl is emotionally and physically exhausted and sits down to rest. Suddenly, it is dawn and a gruff man's voice breaks the early morning peace. She has been caught!
Little Sadie is returned to the residential school from which she escaped, only to face severe punishment. And for the next ten years, she suffers physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She cannot speak her language, she cannot go home - her spirit is broken. The days turn into night - the nights turn into days. The years pass. Sadie sweeps and mops, scrubs and cleans - wondering why is she here? Her best friend Angie has become a little mechanical robot, doing her chores like a well-programmed machine. Her constant lament is: "I can't remember what my mother looks like." Sadie must get away before it's too late. But, it is too late for her best friend Angie. Angie has committed suicide. Finally - one night under the light of the moon, Sadie jumps the fence - and runs!
1990: On Sadie's university graduation, she observes: "Even on this very special day, my biggest accomplishment was surviving residential school." Sadie proudly receives her hard earned degree - while the figures of Little Sadie and Middle Sadie reunite into one strong woman. The last residential schools closed in the early 1970's. For some, the residential school experience was a positive one. Those survivors are happy today. This is just one of many stories. We have forgiven - but we can never forget.

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Critical Writing

ImagineNative Media Arts Festival
by Tom Lyons. Take One, Mar. 2003, v. 11, no. 41.