Jeff Barnaby rocked our world again and educated us about the horrors indigenous people face in Canada. It follows the story of teenager Aila as she navigates a complicated native world that is actively being “reformed.” Traumas include accidental deaths, suicide, incarceration, Indian agents, and forced residential school abuses.
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Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) Director: Jeff Barnaby
Summary by IMDB: Red Crow Mi'kmaq reservation, 1976: By government decree, every Indian child under the age of 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, that means imprisonment at St. Dymphna's. That means being at the mercy of "Popper", the sadistic Indian agent who runs the school.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls: Teen Girl Hero vs. Beast of Assimilation
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Trigger Warning: Forced Assimilation, Violence Against Children
Jeff Barnaby rocked our world again and educated us about the horrors indigenous people face in Canada. Rhymes for Young Ghouls is immediately heartbreaking. It follows the story of teenager Aila (played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) as she navigates a complicated native world that is actively being “reformed.” Traumas include accidental deaths, suicide, incarceration, indian agents, and forced residential school abuses. Kat will dive deeper into the residential schools horrors in her section but here’s a brief overview I found in a super helpful article on Film School Rejects in their Through a Native Lens column titled, ‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls’ and the Legacy of Residential Schools by Shea Vassar.
Residential schools were a common assimilation practice in the United States and Canada up until the 1990s. These institutions taught young Indigenous children the so-called “correct” ways to fit into white society and were thought to be a solution to “the Indian Problem.” In reality, these residential schools were writ with malnutrition, overcrowding, and sexual abuse, on top of the pain from having one’s culture stolen and erased.
With Blood Quantum, we learned that the practice of measuring blood was used by the United State’s Department of Interior to commodify the racial identity of Native people as a means to avoid treaty obligations. With the residential schools, we discovered that it was one of the ways the country sought to control what was considered “indian.” The legal program was sanctioned under the Indian Act which has been active since 1876. We are still discovering what awful things happened in those schools today with bodies of children being found in unmarked graves as recent as this year. Kat will go into that so let’s talk about the film.
Our protagonist, Aila, has far from an easy life but she’s a bada** who still manages to hold so much on her shoulders. Throughout the film, there is commentary about how she isn’t a teenager, forced to grow up too soon due to her lack of parental figures and the aggressive world that simply won’t give her a break. She takes many hits to the face and suffers other abuses throughout from foe and friends. In an interview in Muskrat Magazine, Jeff Barnaby talked with Jamaias DaCosta about the decision to have a female protagonist.
My Nation is a matriarchal society, and paying respect to that archetype of a woman and the strength that is there particularly in First Nations women, it’s imperative for me as a First Nations man who loves his mom, and loves his wife and loves his sisters, to pay reverence to their struggle and their strength...I thought, if there was ever a point in time that this residential school was going to crumble it would have been in the 70’s, it just made sense to me to have a young Native girl bring this institution of ugliness to its knees. It made sense to me because First Nations women are the language and cultural keepers, they are the epicenter of our matriarchal society.
Aila doesn’t attend the residential schools and has figured out her own way of navigating the heavily restrictive and violent world she lives in. Her mother committed suicide after a horrific accident and her father was incarcerated the same day. Trauma is processed differently for everyone. Finding companionship with a young boy who I imagine reminds her of her deceased brother (the beginning of this film sets the tone for the entirety of it with his accidental death). And an older woman she calls her grandmother and others call the witch who provides her with herbs for her booming business. Under the harsh reign of the Indian Agent, Popper, Aila has to get creative in order to pay the truancy tax. This is how she settles on the dangerous heist scheme to steal from the tyrant himself which means breaking into the very school they are trying to avoid.
We are given an internal look into the school where Popper is seen threatening the children. He orders them to only speak English and forbids them from making any sounds or moving anywhere. Assimilation is a strangling beast that lurks over the entire film, a shadow influencing the character’s desperate actions.
Barnaby never holds back on some of the more extreme and traumatizing themes in his work. He doesn’t want to censor the horrors or sugarcoat his messages. In that same interview with Muskrat Magazine, he explained this means he often feels separated from other native creators who feel his work is too harsh or that they promote harmful stereotypes.
I am more interested in the Indian after the ceremony, not during. Ceremonies are meant to be sacred, and take place in a specific space and time, but I am interested in what those guys do when they go home. When the pomp and presentation of ceremony is not there. I am more interested in humanizing Native people rather than perpetuating this idea that we’re doing ok... I find that people who make films about the spiritual Indians are almost trying to portray a positive stereotype, I’ve taken to calling it positivity porn. How do you go through these atrocities and pretend that we are all well adjusted? It’s a serious issue in Native films.
There’s a scene in the film where Aila is living inside a memory she has of her mother. Her mother is spray painting a portrait of an Indian on a door. The figure is wearing a headdress and Aila mentions, “You said we don’t wear the feathers and such.” and her mother agrees. She says that it's true they don’t but that this Indian is what people want to see. I wonder if this is Barnaby’s purposeful commentary.
*Now Entering Spoiler Town*
Aila’s heist is quickly revealed after the shady, untrustworthy Uncle Burner narced on her. She is immediately taken into the school, stripped, and given a haircut. I believe we talked before about the strategy behind cutting someone’s hair in such a situation and how it is used as a tool to dehumanize those under their care. Cutting their hair removes their individuality, their choice - it is akin to cutting their identity, self worth, and more. I can’t speak for Mi'kmaq but I know that hair can be an important part of your cultural identity in some tribes. Changing Aila’s hair in this scene is another attempt to assimilate her, ridding her of another trait that makes her too indian.
In his way, Barnaby wants to show the world the awful gash, the wound of colonialism. On the surface, Aila is seeking vengeance against the corrupt and inherently evil Popper. But Popper represents the structures in place that corrupted and infected her life. Aila is the champion for all of the children affected.
We’re about to get into Kat’s section which will show you just badly a hero like Aila was needed.
Abuse, Death, & Forced Assimilation in Indian Residential Schools in Canada
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Trigger Warning: Forced Assimilation, Violence Against Children, Child Death & Abuse,
Disclaimer: I’m not Canadian, nor am I Native so I am not able to educate from personal experience for this episode, nor will I be able to cover or fully understand the complex and nuanced history of residential schools, and the violence done to Native people in the span of 20-30 minutes. As always I encourage you to take the time to learn as much as you can about the horrors of this world, so you can actively work to do better and build a better future.
From an anthropological standpoint, I think it’s really interesting the way in which morality and intention are taught within western society, and the really dangerous way it manifests in the actions of caucasian individuals (including myself). Specifically, how the obsession with being a “good” person actually pushes oneself away from goodness, because it all revolves around centering yourself and placing yourself above others. When you’re so convinced everyone needs your help you stop asking whether or not you’re actually equipped to help anyone, and whether your help is really ‘help’ at all. You stop asking whether or not your perception of help is actually damaging, and you absolve yourself of accountability when you focus on your intentions. Intention means nothing, when your actions are actively hurting others. I also think it is a problem that “well-intentioned” is often placed before the systemically damaging actions taken by white people, government officials, religious leaders, and others. Sometimes the intention is literally what the action results in (i.e. systemic erasure of evidence and accountability through violence, i.e. cultural genocide). Even if the result isn’t what was intended, I think intention has been manipulated to act as a forgiveness guarantee when it just doesn’t work that way, and that forgiveness is not something we should require for doing better. The only positive use of “well-intended” for me, can be used as a way for white people to realize they're only a skip step away from problematic and damaging actions, and that the line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is something we will forever walk along. That being a ‘good person' still means we have the capacity to ‘bad’ things and that whether or not we meant to doesn’t really matter too much.
In a book I read pieces of titled Unsettling the Settler Within Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling and Reconciliation by Paulette Regan, they go into detail about the struggle with Canadian identity to recognize the true depth of violence that was committed in these schools, and by Canada as a whole. For example, in the foreword of the book mentioned above, Taiaiake Alfred writes, “Canadians like to imagine that they have always acted with peaceful good intentions toward us by trying to fix “the Indian problem” even as they displaced, marginalized, and brutalized us as part of the colonial project. Canadians do not like to hear that their country was founded through frauds, abuses, and violence perpetuated against the original peoples of this land. Canadians are in denial, in extremis.” This stems from Canada’s taught history of being peacemakers, and having better, less violent relations with Native communities than their American counterparts. The reality being that many Canadians feel absolved from the actions of their ancestors, as well as the passive neglect to the issue done by themselves. Ignoring the reality that the last residential school closed in 1996, and that many Natives living today experienced violence from these schools in their lifetime. The author makes a call for Canadians to recognize their role in this systemic violence against Native communities, and also to work to back up that recognition and learning with concrete action. Regan goes on to say “Telling the whole truth about the history and legacy of the IRS system means that settlers must consider the possibility that our relationship with Native people has never been predominantly peaceful or reconciliatory...Important decolonizing lessons can be learned from the ways in which teachers, staff, and various officials chose to ignore, vigorously enforce, comply with, or resist residential school policies and practices in various times and places.”
The problem that stood out to me was the overarching suggestion that many Canadians felt this violence was necessary for Native assimilation into western society. That there is an inherent belief that Western culture was superior to Native culture, and that the creation of these schools, a necessary evil. This was the basis that residential schools were formed around in 1880. The very blatant white supremacy at play is as present today as it was in their formation. Many Canadians still think that western culture is superior to Native culture, as they’ve been taught to think, and thus don’t recognize the real damage that has been done. Ultimately, many recognize that the deaths are bad, but don’t see the problem with the existence of the schools overall, and the violence of this white supremacist thinking. Taiaiake Alfred in the foreword of another book titled Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, by Glen Sean Coulthard explains their interpretation of the thought process of white elites when viewing Native critiques of colonialism. “Then things changed. The mouths of Natives started opening by themselves; brown voices still spoke of the whites’ law, democracy, and liberal humanism, but only to reproach them for their unfairness and inhumanity. White élites listened without displeasure to these polite statements of resentment and reproach, these pleas for reconciliation, with apparent satisfaction. “See? Just like we taught them, they are able to talk in proper English without the help of a priest or of an anthropologist. Just look at what we have made of the backward savages—they sound like lawyers!” Whites did not doubt that the Natives would accept their ideals, since the Natives accused the whites of not being faithful to them. Settlers could still believe in the sanctity of their divine civilizing mission; they had Europeanized the Natives, they had created a new kind of Native, the assimilated Aboriginal. The white élites took this all in and whispered, quiet between themselves over dinner, as good progressive persons of the (post)modern world: “Let them cry and complain; it’s just therapy and worth the expense. It’s better than giving the land back!”
So what exactly happened in these schools?
The residential school system operated cultural genocide with its purposeful attempt to erase all aspects of Native cultures. Students at these schools were taken far away from their families and homes, and forced to embrace Catholic religion and western cultural practices and language while being banned from practicing their own. Students were given numbers, forced to have their hair cut short, and wear uniforms. Boys and girls were kept separated, and even siblings were not allowed to interact with each other. Any violation of rules were severely punished and also resulted in deaths. The causes of these deaths ranged from outright violence to intentional neglect. Often from the conditions of the dorms, and the overcrowding of rooms, that resulted in illnesses like Tuberculosis and flu to spread quickly. In addition to illness, many deaths were caused by fires and accidents that happened frequently. Sexual and physical violence were also widespread and caused many deaths both directly and by suicide. On a website called Indigenous Foundations they outline some of the ways in which children were punished and abused in these schools, arguably with state and church officials fully aware of the abuses and tragedies. Inspectors or officials that spoke up to demand reform and expressed alarm were often silenced or not supported, and promises for improvement never followed up on.
“Abuse at the schools was widespread: emotional and psychological abuse was constant, physical abuse was metred out as punishment, and sexual abuse was also common. Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll. In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce reported that 24 percent of previously healthy Indigenous children across Canada were dying in residential schools. This figure does not include children who died at home, where they were frequently sent when critically ill. Bryce reported that anywhere from 47 percent (on the Peigan Reserve in Alberta) to 75 percent (from File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan) of students discharged from residential schools died shortly after returning home.”
In the film we see the obvious violence and cruelty shown to the children. There are many flashes to mass graves, much like what is being discussed in Canada today, as the number continuously grows higher and higher. The number I was able to find for identified bodies is 1300, but a 2015 report showed over 4000 children died while at residential schools, so it is likely that that number will continue to grow as the investigation continues. In an article from the New York Times titled Canada’s Grim Legacy of Cultural Erasure, in Poignant School Photos written by Ian Austen, he outlines that “Indigenous communities believe these remains are some of the thousands of youths — current estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000 — who went to the schools and never returned home, known as the “missing children.” Something that really hit me, is that parents of these children were often given no explanation for the loss of life, and bodies were rarely returned to families. Their children were stolen, and never returned. Canada has pledged $321 Million to support survivors of residential schools (as they should, and should give even more) but that’s just a bandaid on a wound that needs stitches. In addition to the money, Canada as a whole needs to actively work to deconstruct this superiority complex that it’s developed, and accept that money or not, there won’t always be forgiveness. That no amount of money can bring back the loss of culture and life that’s taken place.