Strangers Stole my House from Me; Indigenous Friends Gave it Back
Why sharing our most pers0nal spaces can make us more whole
The space my family lives in is special.
Built in 1862 (five years before Canada became a ‘country’), our home is an old, tiny, stone school house in Ontario, Canada. Until the early 1950s this sweet, country school saw many boys and girls and teachers come through its door. Boys sat on one side of the pot-bellied stove, girls on the other. At recess, boys played on one side of the school yard, girls on the other.
We moved in when our kids were 5, 8 and 10 years old. Everyone thought we were crazy. At times, we did too. My husband is in marketing, not in ‘fixing-upping’. But we’ve taken great care to preserve and accentuate the history of this building.
We put new cedar shingles on the roof because we knew wooden shingles would have been up there originally. We sanded the ceiling beams back to life, the ones that were felled in our area and pulled by horse to get here. We carefully took up all the orginal floor boards and had the salvagable ones tongue-and-grooved (is that a term?) so we could lay them back into our living room for another 150 years. One of the floor planks by the original front door had considerable wear and tear due to all the little feet that had worn it down over the years. We ever so carefully lifted it out and it now hangs in our front hallway to be pointed out to guests who might care…and to the guests who don’t. I found six slate, 100 yr old chalkboards from another school in Ontario and had them cut up as floor tiles to go in our front hallway. We stripped an inside wall of its plaster, lathe and horsehair insulation to be able to display the stone masonry on the inside of the house. In the walls and floors we’ve found glass bottles, children’s toys, a thick knobby stick that we’ve been told was likely for disciplining (but I really hope not…), and other treasures that we display.
Our kids have loved it here. When we were homeschooling, it was perfection. The pond to swim in and skate on, the forest to explore, room to grow veggies, a treehouse to escape into. This home is like one of the family. Our family of seven: my husband and I, our three kids, the cat and the old stone house.
I say all this to show how much we love this space, how rich it’s history is to us and how important we think it is to preserve our past.
This space is so special. It’s breathes, it inspires, it holds us. It’s ours.
Or is it?
If you’re reading this from outside of Canada you may or may not have heard about the discovery of indigenous childrens’ bodies in mass graves at residential schools all over this country. Us Canadians have known about residential school for a number of years — as much as each of us chose to really ‘know’ — but only with the findings of these graves has there been heightened national uproar.
Through a couple of events highlighting these tragedies here in our city in southern Ontario, our family has gotten to know some local, beautiful, indigenous women. Around the fire in our backyard, they have trusted us with small glimpses into their lives, they have spoken words of humility and graciousness where they could have displayed anger. They have poured out words of love and encouragement over the five of us.
As I was wiping down the kitchen counters before their arrival the first time they visited, two thoughts collided inside my brain. Just as I was thinking about how I wanted everything in its place as I always do (but rarely succeed at) when people come over, and about how first time visitors often ooh and aah at some of the details of this old place, this hit me:
The entire time that white, country children were being taught in this quaint, little school house, there were thousands of indigenous children in ‘schools’ who were being given anything but an education.
They were being abused in every possible way, their bodies experimented on, forced to leave their families and cultures sometimes for forever. It was the first time I didn’t know if I felt ok living inside this space. The first time I considered the white, privileged, colonists kids and families who were a part of this community, who may have supported the idea of residential schools. They would have spent a lot of time within these walls.
I’ve always felt pride in this space, how we’ve cared for it, how it represents the history of such a wonderful community and country.
My pride in my home dissipated with that thought. For the first time I felt guilty for living in this piece of history whose time period represented so much hate and violence and death to a remarkable group of people who never wanted to own any space at all. They always wanted to share it.
Strangers stole my house from me.
Our friends, White Eagle and Amber, arrived and said the same lovely things about the house that most people say. Apologetically, I told them about how I was feeling about it just before they arrived. Immediately, White Eagle wiped out any shame or embarrassement I may have felt. Oh, don‘t ever feel bad that children were being given an education here, she said. That’s how children should have been treated. All children should be loved and nurtured. Amber agreed.
Graciousness, acceptance, humility and love. All in a couple of sentences. Theirs was a perspective I couldn’t come up with on my own.
Our Indigenous friends gave me my house back.
But we don’t want it back just for ourselves. Whose space is it anyway? We live here, pay the property taxes and mow the lawn but we don’t want to live as though this place belongs just to us. Because it doesn't. Or, rather, it shouldn’t.
Tonight we are having a full moon ceremony around the fire pit in our backyard for the second time this summer, led by these incredible new friends of ours. Indigenous and non-indigenous women from our community are becoming friends. Us non-indigenous women are learning about their rich culture. There is laughing and crying, sharing and healing.
By inviting these strangers-turned-friends to share what the municipality has deemed my and my husband’s legally owned ‘space’, White Eagle and Amber have opened up opportunities for others to gather and to heal.
The ‘space‘ they are sharing, though you can’t see it physically, is more special than any physical space we could own — cedar shingles, worn down floor boards and all.
Share your space. It’ll make you a little more whole inside. It’s not always convenient, it can be awkward or messy or not at all what you expected but I’m sure it’s not really your space to claim anyway.
Give it away and it’ll come back. And you’ll be just a little more whole than you were before.