The Gilded Cage

The Gilded Cage

His dewy, sparkling eyes traced the clouds for the bright ball of fire.

“Kizis!”, came a gurgling laugh as little Ahanu clapped his grubby hands with glee. 

The children of the Wahuiti tribe were having an ordinary, unremarkable day, splashing gaily in the stream, rolling in the mud, or running around with sticks. The Wahuiti elders were away for a hunt. Their women were busy tanning, sewing clothes from animal hides. Peace resided over the settlement. 

“Ahanu? Come home, son.” His mother called out as the sun continued its westward journey. Ahanu returned to his wigwam hut, changed into a fresh breechcloth while his mother served a humble meal of cornbread and nut-milk. It was just three of them, Ahanu, his mother and baby sister. His father had died in a freak hunting accident, gored to death by a wild boar. Since then, they survived at the mercy of the tribe. 

They halted mid-bite and rushed out as the ground shuddered under the clopping of thunderous hooves. The elders were back. Chief Clawfoot alighted and the men handed over the game to the waiting women. But there were some strangers trailing behind the group causing a din to arise. 

Men in long, black robes came into view but didn’t bother to alight. The chief turned around and the clamor died down. He addressed the tribe, “This is Master Archibald, the dean of the school in Dalamure, the nearest town from our settlement. He wants to encourage our children to study in his school.”

The dean, with beady eyes, a thin moustache, and a nervous twitch spoke aloud, “Times are changing. We would like to give your children an opportunity to study scriptures, live a better life and not as a nomad, hunting, and scavenging. We will be back tomorrow. Keep them ready.”

There was an underlining threat in his tone; his voice laced with authority.

A new day dawned grimly, as silence and unease settled over the tribe. By mid-morning, screams and cries pierced the air as wagons were piled with scared, bawling kids. Ahanu sat whimpering, beseeching his mother. There was nothing she could do against the power of the cloaked men. 

Ahanu bid a teary goodbye to his mother, his sister, his tribe and innocence as he knew it. 

***

The wagons arrived at the sprawling residential school. The tribals kids poured out of the overflowing wagons, shivering in their moccasins. They were corralled together in the corner of a large hall with high ceilings. Ahanu gaped at the humongous expanse of his new home. The dean arrived, followed by his staff, both men and women in starched attire and stern countenance. 

They pulled up a boy. “What is your name?” They asked him in a language foreign to the kids. English, it was called as they learnt later. Unable to interpret the question, the boy blubbered, just as resounding thwack met his cheek.

“YOU…are One! Say ‘One’.

“Wuuuunnn!” He repeated, rubbing his smarting cheek.

“I don’t want to listen to the bestial languages you speak. From tomorrow, learn to speak English. Not a word of your native tongues shall taint these walls.” He thundered. 

A matron continued numbering the kids, stripping them of their names, identities, and clothes.

“Burn these stinking animal hides, far away from the school or bury them.” Matron Marie ordered a servant.

Ahanu shivered, standing naked on the cold, dank floor. A bundle of light, cotton clothes – a loose shirt and drawstring pants were thrust in his hands. The matron suddenly appeared in front of him. “YOU are thirty-seven!” She spit out.

Ahanu tried to repeat in a whisper, “Thu-say-wun, thu-say-wun…” while struggling to wear the new clothes. He didn’t want to risk asking her again.

“Now off to your beds!” She barked a last order.

Matron Marie harrumphed with satisfaction. Dirty, grimy, tanned faces from several nearby settlements looked at her with fear. It was time she made them earn their keep. But there was a fine line between discipline and abuse. And the school staff tottered precariously towards the later.

The massive front and back gates creaked closed with a thump and their massive locks slid into place. Ahanu muffled his sobs in his pillow as loneliness engulfed him. The bed felt cold, depleted of any warmth that his home infused. Tiny fingers caught his eye as they wriggled towards him.

“Thu-tee-say-wun? You awake?” Came a whisper from the bed beside him. Ahanu sniveled, “Yes, who are you?”

“The name is Dakotah, from the Wayaqui tribe. But now I am thu-tee-ate.”

A little ray of light shone in their gloomy world as a budding friendship took root. 

At the crack of dawn, the kids were rudely roused. Cold baths and meager meal later they assembled in the main hall.

“From today your lessons begin. You must learn our language and culture for you to assimilate within us. Daily prayers and penance will be offered. Tasks shall be allocated to you. Don’t dare to miss one”, said the matron. Some kids were allocated to the kitchen, some to the main hall while few others to scrape the garderobes and their daily drudgery began. 

One native word, one speck of grime or one unrequested eye contact would fetch them a sound beating.

Dakotah was Ahanu’s only comfort and a ray of sunshine in gloomy times. Days passed into years as they learnt English and kept their heads buried in work and studies. The abuse continued, worsening as they grew up.

One day, Dakotah scrubbed the floors for hours till it shone to the matron’s satisfaction. On another, Ahanu was whipped for vomiting during the dinner, no mention was made that they were served rancid chicken.

The school had toughened their skin. But it broke their spirits when the abuse turned predatory.

One night, Ahanu sat by the window of his dormitory. He saw the dean welcome a few guests late in the night. A clear voice echoed through the dormitory, “Twenty-one, seventeen, nine. Get up and come with me!” Feet shuffled and the door closed behind them.

Their haunted faces the next morning, sent a shiver through the spine. It was an endless nightmare. The real horror struck when numbers started missing during the roll calls. Ahanu and Dakotah thought that the boys had escaped, igniting a spark of hope in them. 

But that night, as they sat beside the window planning their escape, sudden noises outside the back-gate caught their attention. Someone was digging a pit and a man with an umbrella, stood over him. Wrapped bundles lay beside them that they pushed in the pit. Realization hit Ahanu and Dakotah like a punch in the gut. The missing numbers! Those were graves!

As they gawked in horror, the man with the umbrella turned around and looked straight into their eyes. The dean!

Ahanu and Dakotah scurried to their beds, cowering under their blankets. Their hearts thudded in their ears with fear as minutes passed by. The door creaked and a menacing voice hissed, “Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, come with me.”

***

The next morning, Ahanu dragged himself to the hall in time for the roll call. The other kids were already seated, having their breakfast, oblivious to the events transpiring around them. Ahanu sat with a fuzzy mind, blocking away the pain and trauma. 

“Thirty-seven??” The matron barked behind him.

Ahanu raised his hand meekly, “Yyyyess!”

She ticked her chart and moved on.

“Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one…….”

Wait, thirty-eight??

 “Thirty-eight?” He gasped aloud. The matron shook her head disapprovingly and moved on. 

Ahanu slumped, terrified as a wave of nausea hit him. He shivered uncontrollably. 

His heart screamed but he locked the agony and the words in. His mind conjured the images from the earlier night – Gate…Umbrella…Window…The graves…Dakotah! And the world blacked out. 

***

50 years later

Ahanu sat on his wheelchair in the senior home, staring numbly at the newspaper. The headline read “256 unmarked graves unearthed at the site of Dalamure residential school.”

His hazy past returned to him in pieces. The anguish, the struggle, his futile attempts to escape after Dakota died, blurred before his eyes. He was thirteen years old, when he was released from school. He tried to tell them – his mother, the chief, the sheriff. But they did not believe him, chastised him for trying to defame a respectable organization.

He lived a half life, always looking over his shoulder. It was difficult to form relationships due to the fear pain and abuse rooted deep inside. 

But today, after five decades, he broke down into sobs and hysterical laughter. They knew now what he tried to scream. The townsmen had burned down the dilapidated, vacant building that housed the horrors.

Ahanu had finally found a closure. A little voice called out, “Thirty-seven?” Ahanu looked towards the window.

Dakotah smiled serenely and beckoned him.

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Glossary: 

Kizis – sun, in Native American dialect

Ahanu – A Native-American boy name which means “He laughs”

Wigwam – A dome or cone-shaped huts made of wooden poles and bark used by Native American indigenous tribes

Breechcloth – A loin cloth made of tanned animal skin or fur

Dakotah – A Native American boy name which means ‘Stars’

Wahuit/Wahuiti, Wayaqui – Fictional names of tribes.

Dalamure – A fictional name of a town

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Author’s Note: This is a fictional take on true events. For ages, indigenous tribes across the world have faced ethnic cleansing and driven out of their homelands under various pretexts. A few such tribes faced unmentionable horrors under the name of residential schools for indigenous tribes. The author only wishes to highlight their plight and the historical events and not offend any person, race or community.

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