Mandatory school haircut stole her spirit

Mary Matchee says that when you take something from nature, you must replace it.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Mary Matchee says that when you take something from nature, you must replace it.

February 17, 2014
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

For the sisters who ran the Indian residential school at Beauval, Sask., cutting children's hair was simply a matter of preventing lice from getting into the school. But for the children, the mandatory hair-cutting exercise meant the loss of their spirit.

Arriving at the school when she was four years old, Mary Matchee was placed in a line with all the new children to meet a priest with shears and sisters with long scissors.

"My hair had never been cut, and when my hair came off, I cried," Matchee said in a Feb. 4 talk at Newman Theological College.

"My spirit was taken off. I understood from the time I was one-year-old, two-years-old that my hair embodied my spirit; it was an extension of my spirit.

"They just took it. They cut it off and let it hit the floor and garbaged it."

Matchee, aboriginal program manager with Catholic Social Services, said the hair-cutting had a strong effect on her. Even today, she will not throw her hair in the garbage.

Matchee spoke at one of a series of noon-hour seminars on the Medicine Wheel as Pastoral Ministry that was put on by the college. About 35 people attended the Feb. 4 session.

She recalled one nun at the school who was very kind to her and the other students and another nun who was cruel. "I think they shipped (the kind sister) away because she slipped food to us."

As for the other sister, Matchee remembers deliberately doing things to make her red in the face.

"Even then, I was trying to bring my spirit back," she said. "'I'll show you; you think you cut my spirit, well I'll show you spirit."

Six years ago, she spoke with another sister who worked in a residential school. The sister told her that they had no choice. They had to do what they were told or they would be punished.

Although Matchee lost her hair six years ago when she was battling cancer, it has come back. "I made a pact with my mother that I will never cut it off until she's died. And she's strong!"

'TECHNICALLY STOLEN'

One time when she and her siblings were on a break at home from residential school, her mother "technically stole me" and brought the family to the Little Italy section of Edmonton.

She thought she was like the other children in the neighbourhood. "But in high school, I realized everybody else was going to Europe on summer vacation and we were going on the trapline."

Because of her experience on the trapline, she has ensured that her own children learned how to scale and dry fish, to dry berries, what wood to collect and what medicines help with what diseases. She still has a trapper's licence.

As a young child, she would collect bugs. But when her grandfather found a dead grasshopper in her pocket, he was unhappy. "He said, 'You shouldn't have done it. Why did you kill it? What purpose did you have to take it? You should have left it there."

That impressed her with "the law" that whenever you take something from Mother Nature, you should put something back in return. When hunting, talk with the Creator beforehand because if you take something out of its environment, you will affect everything around it for years.