One of the many topics that got me thinking came in the contradictions in the experiences in residential schools. In the Deaf community, the residential school experience at a Deaf School is often a very positive one – a place where culture and language is developed and preserved. However, at this morning’s panel, Martha Flaherty, an Inuktitut interpreter, shared her experience of becoming an interpreter – including that it started in attending a boarding school. Yet the experience of attending a residential school for her and for other Aboriginal people in Canada and the United States was very different than that of Deaf people. Vera Houle, another panelist who works for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, shared that she also was a “survivor” of the boarding school experience.
To me, it is important to understand the different paths that communities have taken to where they are now and see how that history impacts the work that is required. For indigenous people, these schools were institutions of historical trauma. Young children were taken away from their families with the goal of stripping their language and culture from them. Martha Flaherty shared that she was at the school for 10 months every year with her family forbidden to have contact with her. When she returned to her home during the other two months, she was somewhat of a stranger. Ironically, this traumatic experience also served as a foundation for her becoming an interpreter. She learned English at the school – which she taught to her grandparents. Yet her grandfather shared how important their language is to preserving community and so no English was allowed in their home. So, she re-learned Inuktitut from her grandparents. To learn more about the Canadian boarding school experience for Aboriginal people, click here.
Coming from the perspective of an ASL-English interpreter who works with the Deaf community, I feel that it is really important to understand these different experiences – and to recognize that in facing systems that oppress linguistic and cultural minorities – albeit in different ways, it is important to learn from each other’s experience to be able to partner in building a world that seeks to life people up, rather than keeping them down.