Far From Home

Apr 18, 2014
Originally published on April 18, 2014 5:19 pm



Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR the "Choosing Sides" episode. Today, we're nosing into situations where neutrality is not an option.

Now, you know, the forces that make us choose one thing or the other, they're often people, family, our neighbors, our boss. But sometimes, that which makes you decide where you stand, it's so much bigger than any one person. For our next piece, SNAP JUDGMENT's Anna Sussman takes us to the top of the world.

MARGARET POKIAK: We would eat caribou, we eat a lot. And muktuk, it's the outer skin of a whale - beluga whale. And then we have a certain thing called Eskimo ice cream. It's made with rendered caribou fat and then you whip it up and put berries and meat in it and it's very delicious.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: Margaret Pokiak's family lived in a one-room tent insulated with ice bricks on an island in the Arctic Ocean in northern Canada.

POKIAK: Well, when I was growing up, we never went into town or anything because there was no towns to go to. We'd get a year supply of food and then we'd spend all winter.

SUSSMAN: Her family is into it. They hunted and fished and traded fur.

POKIAK: Then we'd go out and play with the caribou hide balls. We'd have balls that's made with fur with hairy side inside. And we'd travel by dog team out for a drive or a ride. My dad would make up little beds and I'd have a polar bear skin that's on the floor side and then the caribou hide on top of that.

SUSSMAN: At night, Margaret's half-sister would read stories to the family in the tent. She had been sent to a residential school run by the Catholic Church and the Canadian government for Inuit kids, so she knew how to read. Margaret didn't understanding the English words her sister read aloud, but she was fascinated.

POKIAK: I didn't even know what she's talking about, but it sounds like it was very, very interesting. And that's was my interest in learning to read came about.

SUSSMAN: Margaret wanted to go to school but there weren't any schools near the island, so her only option was to go to a residential school like her sister. Her father had also been to a residential school and he and her sister would warn a Margaret, you don't really want to go there.

POKIAK: They would say that but we just don't understand things like that when you're a kid, you know, a little kid. But I knew one thing for sure, that I had it in my head that I was going to learn to read.

SUSSMAN: In lots of places, the police and the missionaries were forcibly removing kids from their homes and taking them off to these residential schools. Families would literally hide their kids under beds and in the bush, nobody wanted to go. But Margaret didn't know any better, so when the ice melted on the ocean, Margaret's family boarded a boat to the mainland.

POKIAK: And mom and dad, they took me to the school and they weren't hardly saying anything. We all said our goodbyes and they left.

SUSSMAN: About half the children at the school were Inuit and the other half were from different native tribes. The nuns took their handmade clothes and replaced them with uniforms and forbid them all from speaking their native languages. Margaret realized very quickly that the school was not what she had hoped and that she was more alone than she could have ever imagined. She was 8 years old.

POKIAK: You don't understand what they're talking about and you weren't allowed to use your language. They's say, shh. So it's - you feel very isolated. I wondered why I even wanted to go to school because I thought the very first thing they would do is teach me how to read and write and that wasn't it at all.

SUSSMAN: She didn't even enter a classroom for her first three months at the school.

POKIAK: We had to do chores like scrubbing floors and...

SUSSMAN: The kids had to get the school ready for the winter, cleaning and unloading supplies from barges.

POKIAK: Everybody had to unload the cordwood, you know? It's a lineup like a chain gang and the first three or four days you just think you're dying when you wake up - you ache so much. You carry on and then at night you hear a lot of children - we all would be crying. And a lot of them try not to make any sound but you see - hear the little ones, they have nobody to tell them it's going to be OK.

You learn how not to cry and I just - it was very hard. Their main goal was to teach you how to be a Catholic. And they tell us that if we didn't get our parents converted, that they were going to go to hell. And when you're a little kid, you just don't want your parents to go to hell. When they first asked me to kneel down, I didn't know what I was supposed to do.

SUSSMAN: Margaret wanted to go home but she was forbidden from writing to her parents to tell them how unhappy she was. And then in the middle of the dark northwest winter, she got her chance.

POKIAK: Before Christmas time they want us to go to the radio station and say hi to your folks.

SUSSMAN: The nuns brought the kids to a local radio station. They were going to broadcast holiday messages out to the remote snowy islands of the North.

POKIAK: All the girls were happy and said, oh, we would be talking to our parents on the radio station. And so, oh goody, I can let them know that I want to go home and please come and get me. So we walked over to where the radio station was. I was waiting outside with the rest of the girls, maybe about 30, I think.

And they'd bring us in one by one. I was very excited. I thought finally I'm going to be able to tell what I really wanted to say to my parents. And we're all trying to move around so we can stay warm because it's very cold up there. Everyone had gone in there and I was maybe three or four of the last child to go in.

And then they gave me a piece of paper and they said, you can read that. And, of course, they wanted to say that they were treating me really good. And I thought well, that's not how I felt. And I didn't want to say that so it was my turn, I got in front of the microphone but I won't say anything. I could tell the nun was very mad but she couldn't say anything loudly. I just absolutely never said anything and that was that.

SUSSMAN: The parents were listening to the radio waiting for her to speak they could hear her breathing. They knew something was up.

POKIAK: But there's hardly anything they could do about it because they were hundreds of miles away.

SUSSMAN: There was no way for her parents to come and get her. They were on an island in the middle of the ocean. It was two years before the ice melted enough for Margaret and the other students to board a boat home for the summer.

POKIAK: We were all so happy and we were - we kept stopping and letting off most of the children along the Mackenzie River. When we arrived in Tatiatuk(ph), everyone got off the boat. I seen my mom and I went up to her and I was standing in front of her and she didn't recognize me because I had grown and I was all dark brown from the sun from the last two years. She looked at me and she said, not my girl, not my girl.

And that's the first English words I ever heard her say. It was the worst kind of feeling a person can have, I think without actually dying. And the food, I wasn't used to eating the foods that I grew up with. And everything tasted - they smelled so strong and I wasn't used to that. At home I wouldn't eat. I couldn't - I had lost my language and I couldn't understand any words at all. It was quite awful not being able to speak to your mother.

SUSSMAN: And did you want to go back to school?

POKIAK: No I didn't. I told dad I never wanted to go back to school.

SUSSMAN: But it wasn't up to her. The missionaries would come back to collect the children.

POKIAK: You learn how to hide when you think they're coming. So it's quite scary that when you think that they going to find you and take you away.

SUSSMAN: But there was no way the Inuit could hide from the rest of Canada. Outsiders were flooding into the island and the government together with missionaries were taking away more and more children. Margaret's father pretty much saw the writing on the wall. His kids would need certain skills to compete.

POKIAK: He was not excited about it, it's just - like if you want to be in tune with the world, you have to kind of use your own judgment at times.

SUSSMAN: And he told Margaret he had to send her little sisters to school and he needed to send her too to take care of them.

POKIAK: He figured my little sisters would be OK if I went with them.

SUSSMAN: That spring, Margaret climbed into a boat with her two little sisters from a nearby town they called, Tuk.

POKIAK: As soon as we got on the boat, I made sure that my little sisters were with me. And we all sat together and I even have a picture someone had taken where we all look so sad and we're all sitting together in a group, my sisters and I. We were watching Tuk getting farther and farther away and we're all trying not to cry. We are not happy, but we were just OK being together.

WASHINGTON: When Margaret Pokiak and her sisters left on the boat that day, they had no idea that one of Margaret's sisters would go on to become the first Inuit nurse in Canada. And of Margaret's 16 brothers and sisters, about half went to live in mainstream Canada and half continued to live traditionally.

The Canadian government eventually apologized for the residential schools treatment of Inuit children and Margaret - Margaret eventually fell in love with a cowboy and moved to a farm down south. To find out more about the Inuit people who were systematically cut off from their cultures, we'll have a link to more information on our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman. You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT, storytelling with a beat. We'll be right back in a moment. Stayed tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.