The Mush Hole – An Incredible Resource Offering a Chance to Reflect

The horror of residential schools became real to me by reading Elizabeth Graham’s The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools – even though our grandmother and her two brothers were students at the Mohawk Institute Residential School. I did know, from asking her questions, that she and a friend had run away from a school but I guessed that it was like the boarding schools I’d read about in novels. It wasn’t until I started to read newspaper articles in the late ‘90s about the class action lawsuits from residential school survivors and their families that I started to realize my version of her school days was so wrong. Our mother and her sister found Elizabeth Gilbert’s book at one of the TRC’s events and brought a copy home. I actually avoided the book for some time but eventually started to read it, in small batches. It’s not a book that can be read quickly because it takes time to absorb the subject matter; it’s important to take a break and reflect. 

The author has divided her book into three sections. In the first, “Voice-over,” she creates some context for the almost 500 pages of documents, excerpts, and interviews she has compiled. Her second section, “Voice of authority,” is divided into two so that she can separate out the materials collected from the two schools. The final section is the most interesting but is also the most difficult to read, called “Voice of experience.” She also includes an incredibly helpful bibliography and full index which include the names, subjects and places mentioned throughout the book.

Although her book was published in 1997 I find it mentioned often in other books and websites about the history of residential schools in Canada. She has combed through archives and transcribed documents with care so that she can provide a perspective on the schools which she admits is one she comes to with her own biases but she is upfront with these to allow the reader to have them in mind before they are too far into their own reading. In “Voice over” Graham also includes details about how she compiled her research, how she located her interview subjects and provides a brief history of both of the schools. As an anthropologist she is interested in the daily life of the students so there is an emphasis on health, food, the ‘curriculum,’ the staff in the classrooms, and the forms of punishment in her first section. The viewpoint she provides is balanced and prepares a reader well for the section which follows.

The second part of the book, “Voice of authority,” is a bit dry but the index would be a helpful tool if a researcher were looking for content from a particular figure in the history of either school or if someone wanted to see if a family member were mentioned. As she has included excerpts from letters sent by school administrators there are many official discussions of the maintenance of the school and farm but occasionally they share details about student achievements as when students graduate or participate in athletic activities which could be of interest to many readers. She features conversations about punishment, curriculum, and discussions with staff and parents. However, most of these excerpts are taken from letters sent from one official to another so the contents are written in the detached language of administrators. There is a lot to be learned from this section in her book, even if it is difficult to read.

In the last section, “Voice of experience,” she includes the recollections of students who attended the two schools. Each person’s story is vivid and very personal, as they share experiences from childhood (in some cases over 50 years have passed).  Some speak of their first moments away from family, some talk about attending the school with siblings, many can remember seeing other students being harmed or talk of their own abuse, and a few are able to offer reflection on how it impacted them. Despite their words being printed on the page it’s still possible to get a sense of personality from each interview subject.  The author limited her editing in this section so these flow easily and are an incredible resource as well as a way to capture these unique reflections.

I’m so grateful that Elizabeth Graham wrote this book, so that we can have this resource and that others have been able to use it as a springboard for their research and art. I recommend you read  The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools and I also suggest a trip to the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford where the original building is being preserved and where a vibrant cultural centre has been created with a museum, library and archive. They focus on connecting with history but also on celebrating art, culture, education and language with a calendar of events throughout the year. On September 30th we reflect on the lasting damage of residential schools but the work of reconciliation can happen on any day and the Woodland Cultural Centre is one place to start.

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