Behind the Mask

Today is Orange Shirt Day, a day marking the impact of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, “a day for First Nations, local governments, schools and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come.” In honour of this event, I share the story of my encounter with one residential school survivor.  

004 Behind the mask insetThe mask illustrates his story, Isadore Charters tells me.

Bold, wide strokes of red paint represent his mother and a song he fondly recalls her singing to him; The Red Horse. The deep carvings on the mask’s left cheek and somewhat shallower marks on the right represent scars belonging to his father.  The black paint, except for the thin line above the mask’s upper lip, also represents his father.

I can’t help but wonder about the way the shape of the red and black paint on the left cheek are informed by the deep grooves of the scar. What does that mean about the impact of that scar on his father’s life and his mother’s? 

I don’t want to interrupt to ask, to pry for any more details than those he freely offers.  I feel as though I am standing on sacred ground as Isadore’s soft, sure voice continues.

The thin moustache above the mask’s upper lip represents the hair he grew while he was in junior high. The moustache made him appear older, old enough to buy liquor. “I was an alcoholic by then,” he says matter-of-factly. A shadow of the child he was before his time at residential school. Yenmo Ceetza, he was named at birth. “Yumo,” they called him in his early years.

The strands of grey and black hair around the mask represent the man Isadore has become, the wisdom he has gleaned from the rough strokes of life.

“Tell me about the song your mother sang for you,” I ask, curious.

Isadore picks up the mask and cradles it in his left arm. Slowly, steadily he begins to tap on it with the fingers of his right hand. “I’ll sing it for you,” he says.

I don’t understand the words, but the melody is soft and warm and wraps around me like a lullaby in a profound sense of intimacy. I’m not sure how to respond. For an instant, I have a glimmer of the love and contentment he must have felt cradled in his mother’s arms, and I sense the anguish he must have experienced when he was stolen from her.

It’s hard to find my voice when the song fades. I thank him, but words are not adequate for the gift he has given me.

Isadore Charters attended Kamloops Residential School for eight years and now lives with his wife and family on Soowahlie territory near Cultus Lake. An artist, Isadore expresses his life’s journey through drawing and carving. With Don Klaassen, a Church Mission Coach with Outreach Canada, Isadore is carving a healing pole that reflects his journey toward healing and tells the story of his experience in residential school. Isadore and Don brought the healing pole to Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2012 in Vancouver, B.C., on July 13 and 14, and shared from their respective stories during the worship service on July 15.

Behind the Mask was originally published by Mennonite Church Canada and is used with permission. Photos and story by Deborah Froese.