The new coordinator of the Anglican Healing Fund: on residential schools, trauma and recovery
Last November, there was a new leader at the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office: Martha Many Grey Horses had arrived to take up her new role as coordinator of the Anglican Healing Fund, which gives grants to support the recovery of Indigenous people from the Indian Residential School system. (Esther Wesley, who had served in the role since 2001, retired in December 2018.)
Many Grey Horses, who holds a doctorate in educational thought and socio-cultural studies from Arbour University, brings with her decades of experience in fields including education administration, teaching and grants management. Most recently she served as contractor-director of health and social programs at Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon Territory. The Anglican Journal sat down with Many Grey Horses to learn more about her and to hear her thoughts on the potential of the Healing Fund to make a difference.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
What attracted you to this position?
The word “healing,” because I’ve travelled that road before, and continue to travel it—in terms of my personal healing, and in terms of reaching out to help my peers. In the ’80s, I did a lot of work in communities in western Canada as a consultant in human and community development. So I felt like it just pulled at me. I knew that as a coordinator, I would be able to offer some insight into what the applicants are doing with their projects.
What residential school did you attend?
It was St. Paul’s Anglican Indian Residential School, and it was located on my reserve [Kainai First Nation, Alta]. I started at five and I ran away from there when I was 12.
What happened when you ran away?
I was going through suffering at the residential school, and it was starting to get really unbearable. They used corporal punishment. Even if you did not do the actual wrongful act, you still got punished for somebody else’s wrongdoing. We all dreaded that, without saying it to one another. There were abuses that were taking place between students; it wasn’t just with the adults.
We didn’t live that far from the school. So I just ran through the fields.
My father, especially, understood why. I had been talking about it for some time before I ran away. I didn’t tell him I was going to run away—I was telling him that it was really bad, that I wanted to get away from there. So the next day they went to see the Anglican minister and my father made up his mind he wasn’t going to let me go back. And I agreed that I would not miss school, I would get good grades and I would finish high school. So I did all three. I didn’t go back to the residential school. I went to a public school.
What role has the Anglican church played in your life since then?
There was a time as a youngster when I was really attracted to the teachings, the rituals of the Anglican faith. So I went to the minister and I asked if I could be confirmed. There’s a period of time when everything I did, it was a prayer. If I played, there was a prayer. If I went sliding, there was a prayer. If I went for a walk, there was a prayer. About that same time—I was probably about 10—my sister and I were initiated as keepers of medicine pipe bundles and that transfer ceremony took place in a big tribal encampment, so all the elders were there, the whole tribe witnessed that transfer. I had a strong attraction to spirituality.
Have you practiced both of these traditions throughout your life?
After I ran away I kept on going to church whenever I could. And my parents never rejected or pushed away the Anglican faith. There was no tension between the two ways to the Creator. In my family we had ceremonies, but we also had no problems with going to church. These, I feel, were life-giving principles in action.
And then later on in my healing journey I realized that my issue with the Anglican church is not with the religious teachings, it’s with the staff that were working [at the residential school] and other students. When that distinction was made I felt a sense of freedom to know exactly what my issues are.
There was a lot of internalized oppression going on in the residential school. We learned those patterns as children and now we still play them out in our communities. You oppress yourself by putting yourself down. But then you oppress other people by ridiculing, by shaming, by belittling them or bullying them.
Our people are still so much in need of healing. It takes a long time—it’s not a one-time event. And healing impacts you in every aspect of your life, just like the pain impacts every aspect of your life: physically, psychologically, mentally and of course emotionally, and spiritually, in your own relationship to yourself and in your relationship to other people.
What kind of an impact can the Healing Fund make, in your view?
Learning more about your emotions, how to manage them, how to process them— that to me is the heart of the healing.
One of the ways that I and many Native people have been hurt in residential schools was languages. In my generation, we went into the residential school not knowing how to speak English. And then we couldn’t speak our native language. We were punished, and we were certainly discouraged from speaking it. So that is called language oppression, because you’re not able to articulate yourself in a language that you grew up with. And that’s where the deep-seated shame gets embedded into your system.
The speakers need to be engaged in the healing of that language oppression. And it has to happen now. It should have happened yesterday, because, you know, we’re dying off, the ones that are still fluent in the language. We’re going really fast.
I think the other part of it to me is the cultural component. What we were doing in the ’80s was working closely with the elders. The people that we worked with, we encouraged them to bring in their elders and have the ceremonial aspect, the prayers, be incorporated. The elders were open to a diversity of spiritual activity, and Catholic priests would be a part of our workshop. So we were dealing with the issues around the residential school experience but [also] the connection to the community, and with the family, because people are still grieving over family issues.
I’m really grateful to be in this position. It’s good to be here and continue to help my peers that are out there, and their children and grandchildren. My family are very grateful that I am working here.