St. Mary’s School for Indian Girls

St Mary's School for Indian Girls

Saint Mary’s School For Indian Girls – Vam

“St. Mary’s School for Indian Girls – Anglican Church of Canada” read the sign. I had gotten a ride from the train station in town with local rancher. He said, “Well, that’s it, I guess they’re waiting for you.” He pulled up to the center of the campus and told me to follow the signs to the administration building. The prairie heat was truly oppressive. I gathered my valise and briefcase that weighed at least 25lb., crammed with books, papers and the tools of the teaching trade. I tried to look as professional as I could as I walked across the quadrangle to the main building.

When I arrived at the main building I was greeted by a rather dour-looking woman seated at a desk behind a typewriter. She looked up from her typing and said, “You must be Mr. Clemenceau, our new teacher.”

I replied, “Yes,” as I struggled to wipe the sweat from my brow and extend my hand.

“I’ll show you to your apartment, you’ll have some time to settle in, the girls don’t get here for a few hours.” I thanked her for her kindness.

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She said, “I’m Henrietta Crandell, the school secretary. Anything you need to know, ask me. I’ve been here for 25 years, since the school opened.”

As we left the office, she said, “Here is the classroom building, where you’ll have your classes. All our girls are older, most are between 16 and 18. The younger girls go to St. Thomas down the road on the reserve.” I looked at this Victorian structure which looked more like a county gaol then a high school. Then we passed an old clapboard building. “That’s the dormitory and the dormitory mistresses house.”

A stern-looking woman in a dismal gray dress and came out of the building and greeted my guide. “Henrietta, this must be our new teacher. Welcome, I’m Iola Wiggins. I run the residence.” She said to Henrietta, “We have all the uniforms all laid out, when the girls’ buses get here we’ll get them bathed and cleaned up by 9 tonight.”

Henrietta replied, “Well, I got my ladies coming in to help us tame this bunch,” then she chuckled, like she and the dormitory mistress had a bizarre in-joke.

Henrietta led me over to a larger red brick building that faced the quadrangle adjacent to the dormitory. “This is the faculty residence. Mrs. Calder will show you to your rooms.” Mrs. Calder was the school matron and took care of all the teachers’ needs, Henrietta said as she opened the screen door. “I know that you’ll be happy here. Teaching Indians isn’t easy, we have to civilize them first.”

Mrs. Calder, a gentle-looking woman with a gray dress like Iola Wiggins, about 50 years old, came down the stairs and greeted me. She said, “Henrietta, this must be our new teacher. It’s about time we had a man around here who wasn’t an Indian!” I extended my hand.

Henrietta said, “Mr. Edward Clemenceau, Mrs. Susan Calder, our matron.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, and gave me a key. “Upstairs to the 2nd floor, then second door on the left.”

I grabbed my bags and headed upstairs. After the train trip and the dusty ride from town, I was totally exhausted and longed for a hot bath and long nap. I opened the door and examined my suite. There was a large room facing the dormitory tastefully decorated, a bath with a very large tub and a bedroom off the bathroom that faced the classroom building. All things considered the accommodations were more than satisfactory. I started unpacking and putting my shirts and underwear away, ran the bath water and started reading an old copy of the Farmers’ Almanac, left in the bathroom by a previous occupant. After my long-awaited bath, I got into bed expecting to sleep until morning. I knew that I would have the rest of the weekend to organize for my Monday classes, and I was looking forward to getting acquainted with the countryside. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of the prairie birds.

I was awakened by the sound of a bus engine followed by what sounded like a tower of Babel.

Then the chaos seemed to subside as I heard a loud stern woman’s voice shouting commands. I looked out the window and saw Henrietta, Susan and Iola together with four heavy dour-looking women wearing gray aprons. Iola yelled, “Quiet, I want you all to line up in groups of four. Quiet, line up in groups of four.” The girls numbering about 20 lined up as ordered, still chattering away in Cree, Blackfoot and what sounded like French (locally spoken by the small Metis village). “Line up, you heard me, all girls line up in groups of four and follow me.” Each woman led one group to the dormitory yard which faced my window. The girls all nervously followed, the chattering had ended for the most part, replaced by nervous laughter. These girls were all between 16 and 18, most were from reserves far to the north although a few were local Blackfoot and Metis. They were a rich assortment of Indian ethnology, dark brown-skinned Cree girls, to fair-skinned, red-haired Metis girls and all the complexions in between. Except for the 3 Metis girls all the girls wore their hair in long braids, some had never cut their hair and their braids hung down past their waists. The Metis girls wore blue jeans and contemporary hairstyles and looked like they would have been comfortable in any Montreal high school.

The dormitory yard had been cleared and 6 chairs had been set up along the side next to what appeared to be the bathrooms. As the women entered the yard with their charges I noticed that next to each chair was a stand with barber tools: electric clippers, all plugged into the wall, shears and a towel. Iola yelled to the assembled girls, “This is where you leave your Indian ways behind you. We don’t allow braids or long hair here at St. Mary’s. These church women here have volunteered to help, so don’t give anyone any problems. Like it or not, everybody’s getting a haircut tonight and a bath.”

Then Iola said, “O.K. ladies, let’s get started.” The women each selected a girl from their group and led her to the awaiting chair. “Ladies, watch me, this is how we want St. Mary’s girls to look.” Iola grabbed one of the Metis girls by the shoulder and led her over to the first chair. The girl was hysterical at the thought of losing her thick brown hair. Then with no ceremony Iola wrapped a towel around the girl’s neck, pushed her hair forward, held her head down so that her chin touched her ample breasts then started shearing away her locks at the scalp. As she sheared she dropped lock after lock onto the dust beneath the chair. Iola said, “Cut all this,” holding up a 12″ lock with the scissors, “then use the clippers,” as she proceeded to shear away all of the trembling girl’s hair, lock by lock. Then she said, “Now watch closely, I want you to clip them bald, don’t even leave a shadow.” The other girls watched in horror, some had broken down already as they anticipated their moment in the chair. Iola reached for the clippers. “This is what I want them to look like,” and with that she plunged the clipper head into the brown stubble left by the shears. Iola cut a 2-inch swath right down the middle of the girl’s scalp, letting the last lock drop to the ground. The girl’s screams had calmed down to muted sobs as Iola clipped the last remaining hair, before letting go of the girl’s neck. Because the clippers had no guard like the ones barbers used, they shaved the hair off at the scalp. The hardest part of each haircut was holding the girls still during the process. Once the long hair was cut off, the short hair came off like fleece Then she took off the towel and shook off the fallen locks. Then she said to Susan, “Wait till you take her to the bath and scrub the savage out of her!”

Then each of the woman got a girl from the group they had led into the yard and proceeded to follow Iola’s instructions. I watched Henrietta as she grabbed a girl, a Cree girl judging from her speech, with a single long thick black braid hanging to her waist. The girl was in shock, tears were streaming down her brown cheeks as she slowly got into the chair. Henrietta said, “I guess you never had a haircut before, did you?” The girl nods no. “We’ll make this one one to remember.”

Then the girl pleaded with Henrietta, “Please ma’am don’t cut my hair, please, please.”

Henrietta said, “Sorry, it’s all got to go,” and with a single stroke she lifted the clipper and shaved off the braid at the base of her neck and handed it to her.

The girl started screaming when she saw her severed braid. “No, No, No.”

Henrietta was going to start cutting her shaggy ear-length hair with shears, but because she was resisting so much, she thought clippers would be faster. BUZZ, on came the clippers and Henrietta held the girl’s chin to her chest and started to clip off all the remaining black hair letting it fall in a mound in her lap. Stroke after stroke, pass after pass, until the clippers had completely denuded her brown scalp. Henrietta, seeing a black shadow on the scalp, began to run the clippers over her head again until her scalp was shaven completely bald.

Iola said, “That’s what I want to see. Don’t have any pity, ladies, this hair is a symbol of their Indianness, their wildness and we can’t have any wild Indians at St. Mary’s”

One by one the women proceeded in giving all 19 girls the requisite St. Mary’s haircut. What a drama, you could have filled a lake with tears, not to mention the piles and piles of black and brown hair that blew in the prairie wind all around the yard. The entire process took about an hour. I watched as the last girl was led to the chair, after witnessing 19 other girls lose their hair, she was resigned to her fate. She had accepted that resistance was futile although she sobbed she knew that her braids were soon to be just a memory. Later I got to know the last girl shorn. Her name was Shirley Blind Owl, from the Peigan Reserve. Shirley was to become one of my best students.

Henrietta was going to do the last haircut. She draped the towel around her neck. Shirley tried to loosen the towel, perhaps thinking that the haircut would be canceled if she took off the towel, but Henrietta said, “What’s your hurry, Honey, we haven’t started yet,” as she tightened the towel around her neck and reached for the big shears. Henrietta slid the shears between her left braid and her scalp and slowly she pushed the blades together severing the 2′ black braid. Henrietta said, “There that wasn’t so bad, now for the other,” and with that she severed the right braid, held both aloft and said, as she picked up the clippers, “Just a few more minutes and you can join your classmates in the bath.” Henrietta turned on the hungry clippers and proceeded to attack the hair that had been freed from shearing her braids. From the nape of the neck to the crown, back behind her ears and across her scalp. Back and forth each pass rendering more and more brown scalp. Shirley contorted her face to keep the falling hair out of her eyes. Some of the falling locks clung to her tear-filled cheeks as Henrietta seemingly enjoying her task, kept clipping. Henrietta kept shaving the stubble until her scalp literally glistened in the dim light. I could not believe what I had witnessed. I tried to think of anything else but the haircutting scene, because I was just too turned on by it.

Iola said, “Ladies, bring your clippers to the baths. We have to take care of their crotches and underarms, we can’t have them bringing lice to the dormitory.”

I could hear blood-curdling screams coming from the baths as the women proceeded to finish their task. I could hear Iola’s voice. “Get used to it, this will happen every other week when you get your baths.”

After about a half hour, I heard Henrietta yell, “O.K. girls, uniforms are in the yard. Get the package marked with your name.”

All 20 girls came out of the baths, naked and bald. Some tried to cover their shaved crotches, others tried to cover their breasts. I watched as they each got their uniforms and got dressed in their dour gray shifts, and long gray socks, sensible brown shoes and gray headscarves. They rubbed their shaven heads in disbelief, before covering their heads with their scarves. Some were still sobbing, one girl, the one with the long single braid still clutched it like it could be reattached and this whole nightmare would end.

Iola said, “You’re going to be bald as a coot until you leave here, that’s all there is to it! Monday you start classes and you won’t have time to think about your hair. Single file, line up and follow Mrs. Calder to your beds.” I watched as the students filed out in shock.

Monday morning at 7:30 I went into my classroom, wrote my name on the board and waited for my first class to arrive. At exactly 7:35 Henrietta came into the classroom leading all 20 of the recently shaven St. Mary’s students into the classroom. I looked up from my desk. Henrietta said, “After their haircuts, they are so easy to control and they know who’s in charge. We know how to get them under control and keep them there.”


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