On Sunday mornings, it was quite usual for the guys to sit on a bench in front of a house near the beautiful old, hand-built Anglican Church in Old Massett (which sadly, was burnt down not so long afterwards). Sitting there with the guys, Norma would see Uncle Alfred, Lionel’s goggie (uncle), walking over to open the church for the morning service. After awhile a few of the village elders would also walk to the church, but most often there were only a handful of people attending. Lionel and the boys would reminisce about the good old days when they were children, and nearly everyone attended church. They spoke about the beautiful hand-carved wooden interior, the hand-made pews, the lovely dim light coming through the stained-glass windows. They would remember that they had to sit very still, and be very quiet, and if they wiggled or talked, some of the elderly men, who carried special canes for the purpose, would come over and poke them! They spoke with admiration and respect about the old men, like Chinnie Pete, who had been leaders in the church.
But when Norma suggested going over to the church and attending a service, they just kind of hung their heads and didn’t speak for awhile. At the time Norma didn’t understand their reaction, but as the years went by and she began to hear stories of their years in residential schools, run by the Canadian government, and operated by the churches, and the terrible abuses suffered there, while supposedly Christianity and civilization was being introduced to the children, torn away from their families, she began to understand a little of why they didn’t want to go to church. (Norma did finally get to visit the inside of the church a couple times before it burned, when she was invited to weddings there.)
Dances in the old community hall in Old Massett, which also sadly burned down about this time, were another fun event. The old hall had a stage on one end, and stairs at the other end led up to galleries along the sides where folks could sit and visit while the dancing carried on in the hall below. Occasionally the music would be from record players or boom boxes, but most often it was live, sometimes a local island band, but also quite often, people from the village would play guitars, fiddles, saxaphones, and other instruments. The village had had a band almost from the very time of first white settlement, and almost everyone, of the older generation at least, could play at least one, and often several, instruments, very well indeed.
Norma and Lionel also often walked through the Old Massett Village and he showed her the sites of important old locations, like “Eechil” hill (spelling) which had been an old burial spot long long ago. When Lionel was young, he and the other children would play on the hill, which was really an old sand dune, and in their play, the sod would sometimes get pulled loose, exposing the sand, and sometimes the bones buried there. He remembered skulls coming loose and rolling down the hill. He also took Norma to a field at the end of the village, and told her about village and family picnics and ball games there when he was a child. It was still a beautiful spot, though at one corner a small Alaska-type sawmill had been set up, and around the other edges, the forest was growing inward and reclaiming the meadow. However, much of the meadow was deep in beautiful soft moss, up to a foot or more thick. They would lay back in it, and soak up the sun, and Norma would listen, enthralled, to Lionel’s stories.
Lionel also showed her the house his chinnie had lived in, and told her about the big old house that had been there before, but had burnt down. Originally, it had been a Red Cross hospital, but later, his chinnie had made it into a home for their extended family, and Lionel’s own family, chinnie Pete, and aunts and uncles and cousins all lived there. He had many amusing and also touching memories from his childhood there. He told me of his old uncle, lying in a big old bed, slowly dying. Suppertime came, and everyone went to the dining room to eat, but they told Lionel, who was about 3 at the time, and who was still known only by his Haida child’s name, Hedgie, to stay by his uncle. So he sat there on the chair by the bed. Finally his uncle asked him to climb up on the bed beside him, and Lionel told Norma how he remembered still struggling to climb up onto the big old bed, and then sat down on the pillow beside his beloved uncle. His uncle put his head in Hedgie’s lap, and lay there for a few minutes, and then closed his eyes and breathed his last. Little Hedgie waited a bit, then lifted his uncle’s head onto the pillow, and went off to tell the family. But from that very moment, he knew that someday he would grow up and take care of elders in their old age.
In the yard, Chinnie Pete raised chickens.Lionel told of feeding 250 chickens, and of always having fresh eggs. Across the inlet from the village was a large flat piece of land, and Lionel remembered going across with many people from the village to plant potatoes in the spring, and going back to harvest them in the fall. He also pointed out the site of the old village of Yan, across the inlet, that his grandfather had lived in as a child, and he told Norma some of the stories his grandfather had passed down. Sometimes, Norma and Lionel would go out to Tow Hill, and Lionel would point out the depression in the ground, where his grandfather’s house had stood when there was a village there, and a fish cannery. There were still a few moss-covered rusty old metal tanks, and a few foundations here and there, but the forest had already grown up over the site. In just a few years, even these last vestiges of a lively community would also be gone, and the Village of Old Massett would build a campsite on this location for the use of their people; Norma and Lionel would come and camp there in the new campsite, 25 years later!
Also in their backyard was a hill, up which Lionel would have to walk every day with buckets, to get to the spring behind the village where they got their fresh water, which they called “red water” because of its color. Red water can be found many rivers and places on the island, and is really quite tasty and fresh. It develops its color in the bogs where it starts.The hill was also a good play area. A favorite activity when Lionel was small was digging tunnels. Now Lionel did not tell Norma about some of these escapades, but his older sister, Kathy, was quite delighted to fill her in, much to Lionel’s chagrin.
One time Lionel had built a particularly long, dark tunnel, and he coerced his little sister, Marjorie, to go into it. Then he quickly blocked off the entrance, and left her there, crying in the dark. He got a good whipping from Chinnie for that. Of course, their home, like all homes in the village, did not have electricity or running water. So they had to go out back to the john. One of Lionel’s less-loved responsibilities was taking his little sisters back there at night, if they needed to go. One night, little Marjorie needed to go so he took her out. He was standing around outside the john, and got a brilliant idea. He started to growl and stomp around in the bushes, trying his best to sound like a bear. Marjorie of course was terrified. Lionel got a good whipping for that one as well.
Another escapade occurred one day when Rose was three; Lionel would have been about six. Rose loved chocolates, and Lionel was looking at some doggie-dos on the ground and noticed they had a chocolaty look about them. So of course he dusted them off and offered them to her. She delightedly took a bite. Lionel really got a whipping for that one, from Chinnie Pete. He apparently cried and cried, and finally fell asleep on the couch. But little Rose got her own sweet revenge. She went out in the yard and got a big stick. She tiptoed up to the couch, and whacked Lionel, who was sleeping, right across the nose. Of course he woke up and started howling – especially as his nose was majorly bleeding! He screamed that Rose should get punished, but everyone else found the whole incident quite funny, and Chinnie Pete was most unsympathetic, announcing to Lionel that he deserved it!
Another story Lionel himself told Norma was about his sister Marjorie. She liked to sneak out at night to visit her friend, but of course this was forbidden by Chinnie Pete. One night she got a bright idea. She would jump out her window! So she put on her coat with its big hood, climbed up on the window sill and jumped. Unfortunately, there was a large spike nailed into the wall under her window, for hanging things on, and as she jumped, the hood of her jacket caught onto the hook, and she was left dangling there, kicking and screaming. The family went out to see what was going on. Chinnie Pete advised them to leave her there for a couple hours – it would be a good lesson for her, he declared!
One other story Lionel told Norma was on a different note. Like other native peoples, the Haida are a very spiritual people, and despite the efforts, often very harsh, of the government to “Chrisianize and civilize” them, they have retained many of their traditional beliefs and ways. In traditional Haida belief, when a person died, if someone closely related was pregnant, the “coonch” (or spirit) of the deceased person sometimes would come back and the new born child would exhibit many characteristics of the deceased person. Lionel’s uncle had passed away not long before Lionel’s older sister had her first child. While he was still a small baby, he did seem to immediately start exhibiting characteristics of the uncle. This was not unusual. The Haida people had been “converted” to Christianity by missionaries, but not all of them were in agreement with the new religion, especially the shamans, and many traditional beliefs continued, “under the surface” so to speak.
When Norma first came to the islands she never heard of these things, but after she started going with Lionel, over the years she began to hear about, and even experience, more of these things. At first, if the old ways were being discussed, and she walked into the room, everyone would stop talking and then change the subject. But as time went by, she was allowed to hear more. She would quickly learn what was repeatable, and what was not. One experience happened when Lionel and Norma came home one day from an outing. When they went up the steps, there were several clam shells lined up across the doorway.Lionel would not allow her to go into the house until he had collected up little twigs and grass, placed them in the shells, and burned them, to prevent any evil occurring to the house and family. It was also common, if negative kinds of things were happening around a house, to invite the church over to the house for a church meeting, and to have the priest or minister do a “house blessing.” This was also done for new houses.
During their walks together, Lionel also showed Norma a small open space in the forest behind the village, where a small armed forces station building had been located during World War II. This site, too, was rapidly being reclaimed by the forest. Out on the beach by the New Masset cemetery, one could also still find, scattered here and there, squares of metal grating, which during the war years had been laid end to end on the sandy beach to provide an emergency landing strip in case it were needed. At the end of Old Massett village, beyond the cemetery, was a pond which had been the village swimming hole when Lionel was a child, and also a favorite gathering spot and picnic spot.
Lionel also told about how, when he was a child, his grandfather toughened him, in the old way, to grow up to be a strong Haida man. Each day he would have to go and sit or swim in the inlet for a period of time, even in the bitterly cold winter waters, and would also have to swat his skin with cedar branches. Oddly enough, Lionel grew up to hate swimming, and generally avoided water unless it was a hot bath or shower! But he did grow up to be strong and tough. In the winter, as he got older, although there was a school bus, Lionel was encouraged to run the two or three miles to school in New Masset, and not to wear a jacket, even in winter. Later this early training would stand him in good stead, as he spent some time in the special forces of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Lionel told how, when he turned six years old, the Indian Agent came to the village and told Chinnie Pete it was time to give Lionel a “Christian” name, as he couldn’t go to school with a “heathen” name. So Chinnie Pete decided on the given names, “Lionel Seymour.” The day before school began, he sat little Hedgie down and taught him his new name, which he had to practice over and over. The next day, the teacher at the small day-school in the village asked each of the students to stand and introduce themselves. Little Lionel stood up and proudly announced, “My name is Lionel Seymour Hill!” There was silence for a moment as the other students kind of gaped at him, and then they all started laughing, because to them he was Hedgie, and they thought it sounded so funny for this little guy to introduce himself with this fancy new name.
When Lionel was nine years old, tragedy entered his life. His auntie Flossie was in labor, and his own mom five months pregnant. Lionel’s dad, Peter Hill, Junior, along with his mom, Irene (Pointe), hired a taxi to take Auntie Flossie up to Queen Charlotte City to the hospital, to have her baby. Meanwhile, at the other end of the island, some man was drinking with his friends, and feeling depressed, announced he was going to get in his car and drive up the highway, and kill himself by going head-on into the first vehicle he met. They just laughed at him, and ignored his threat. But that is exactly what he did. And the vehicle he hit was the very taxi Lionel’s parents and auntie were in. Lionel’s dad and the taxi driver, in the front seat, were killed instantly. His auntie lost her baby, and Lionel’s mom was badly injured, and spent many months in hospital.
Lionel’s chinnie wanted to take care of the family and tried his best. Lionel’s oldest sister, Kathy, who was a very good student and planning to go into nursing after high school, ended up choosing to quit school and work in the cannery to try and support the other 7 children and keep the family together. Basically, as long as Irene was in the hospital, the children, Reynold, Kathy, Dulcie, Lionel, Rose, Rachel, and Marjorie – and baby Linnet who was born during her mother’s hospital stay, were orphans. This was still the time when residential schools were operating. Lionel’s chinnie had attended residential school, as had his parents. Peter Jr and Irene, who was a Coast Salish native from the Musqueam reserve, actually met at residential school. And now, the government moved in and decided the children must also attend. One day, the RCMP and the Indian Agent came to the house, and took Lionel and his siblings away. This was a very difficult time of his life, and though Lionel spoke little of it, Norma could tell that it had deeply affected him, and changed his outlook for the rest of his life.
At the residential school in Port Alberni, there was a fence between the girls side and the boys side, and although he could see his sisters through the fence, he was not allowed to speak with them. The priest in charge of this school was later charged with multiple charges of sexual abuse, but of course that was only the tip of the iceberg, for the children had been torn away from their families, culture and language, and also suffered great emotional and physical abuse. Perhaps Chinnie Pete’s traditional training of Lionel was useful at this point, because Lionel apparently was such a problem at the school, refusing to conform to their rules, that they didn’t keep him there as long as most students were kept.
At some point, also, his younger sisters, along with many other children from Old Massett, were sent to Alberta. Some went to residential school in Edmonton and other locations; many others, including Lionel’s sisters, were sent to live with Mormon families in southern Alberta. For Lionel’s sisters, fortunately, they were all placed with one family who actually loved them and treated them well, and they have kept up friendship and even family feeling throughout the years, but many other children, boys especially, were taken in basically as free farm hands, and were treated roughly. They actually put the boys up on a platform, in their underwear, and the potential foster parents came and looked them over and chose the ones that appeared strongest – very much as had happened in America with the black slaves! The Mormons took in these native children because, according to their religion, the native Americans were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel, and they felt it was their religious duty to teach them the “true” way of their supposed forebears.