Ruth Scalp Lock's book My Name is Shield Woman chronicles the Calgary woman's childhood experiences in residential schools and path to healing. The book was written with Jim Pritchard, who also took this picture.
It’s early on in My Name is Shield Woman: A Hard Road to Healing, Vision and Leadership, when Ruth Scalp Lock talks about those in her family who died, a long line of barely documented deaths that stretched back decades.
Her sister, Rosemary, died at the age of 10 from a broken neck at a residential school in Alberta, an incident that was never explained to Scalp Lock or her parents. Her brother, Lawrence, died at 16 from a heart condition. Another brother, Paul, died after drinking shellac. Yet another, Glenter, froze to death outside his home after visiting his dying father. Her sister Lucy was murdered. So was her niece.
“We had so much tragedy in our lives,” Scalp Lock writes.
It’s a grim passage, written with a certain matter-of-fact tone that makes it all the more unsettling.
“Last week I was at a roundtable discussion on missing aboriginal women,” says Scalp Lock, in an interview with the Herald. “I got up to speak and I still had tears speaking about my sister who was murdered. My niece who was murdered. It’s still in my heart, what happened to them. But I’ve forgiven. I don’t hang onto these things. ”
Forgiveness, Scalp Lock writes, is key to healing. And like many who lived through the unfathomable cruelty of Canada’s residential school system, the now 70-year-old Blackfoot woman had plenty of reason not to forgive and plenty of reason to numb the pain with alcohol. My Name is Shield Woman, a self-published memoir she co-wrote with fellow social worker Jim Pritchard, traces her story from a frightened six-year-old first entering the abusive residential school she attended for 14 years near Calgary, to her battles with alcoholism and the near-decade plight to establish Awo Taan, the first traditional aboriginal women’s healing shelter in the city that is now over 20 years old.
The book also offers testimonials from those who have known Scalp Lock throughout her 40-year career as a social worker, which has included stints working at detox treatment centres, halfway houses, shelters and in child welfare. That includes a chapter from former NHL player and sexual-abuse survivor Theo Fleury, who became Scalp Lock’s “adopted grandson” after meeting her the mid-1990s and helped him with his recovery.
“He was a lost boy,” Scalp Lock says now. “He needed somebody on his walk.”
When it comes to describing her experiences in the residential school system, Scalp Lock does not go into the same harrowing detail as Edmund Metatawabin’s memoir Up Ghost River. But she makes it clear that, like many, she suffered both physical and sexual abuse within the system.
“I want to educate society,” she said. “My people drink a lot. We have a problem with alcohol. Everything that has been put on us has an impact on us, right from Day 1. When you have been traumatized, when you have been abused, there’s an impact. I’m a survivor of residential school. From what I went through I became an alcoholic, because of the abuse I experienced.”
On March 15, Scalp Lock will mark her 41st year of sobriety. She met Pritchard in 1979. He was working at the child welfare office in downtown Calgary and she was brought in as a native liaison. A friendship blossomed and a few years ago while the two were chatting, Pritchard suggested that her story should be told.
Some of the photography in the book, also by Pritchard, will be part of an exhibit named Shield Woman: Pictures from the Telling that opens Sunday at Shelf Life Books. The exhibit runs throughout February as part of the Exposure Photography Festival.
“I think many people know a bit about the whole adverse affect of colonization on aboriginal people, but in particular the residential school experience,” Pritchard says. “I still find many people know very little to nothing about it. I think this is a first-person story that really makes it real and human.”
The opening reception of Shield Woman: Pictures from the Telling will be held Monday from 7 to 9 at Shelf Life Books. The exhibit runs until Feb. 28 as part of The Exposure Photography Festival.