This morning (Thursday, July 25th) I learned that Gerry Starr passed away. I was preparing for a visit from my aunt and my cousins but the news about Gerry caused me stop and have a good cry. As soon as I was done preparing food, I went down to the lake to think about Gerry and to wait for my visitors. In Gerry’s memory, I made a small circle of stones on the beach, noticing after I did so that half the stones were in the water and half were not. Along with the stones, I picked a shiny piece of shell, because for me Gerry had a quiet kind of shine. While I waited, a family of loons fished just a ways off shore. A large osprey (also known as fish eagle) soared way out on the lake, also fishing. This made me think straight away of Edith, Gerry’s wife and my friend, who always looked for the eagle to accompany us on each day of a canoe trip we took.
I was grateful for this quiet moment and this peaceful lake where I could remember Gerry. As I sat, the water lapping the sand slowly shifted my circle of stones.
Gerry always called me Sue Bland, never just Sue like most people!! Together, he and his wife Edith were unfailingly kind and hospitable and generous to my family and I. Gerry was the dad of my great friend Gail, and her sisters Danette, Geraldine, a sister I have not yet met, and the late Jean. He was the moshum of my goddaughter Janaye and her sister Taye, and a whole bunch of boys. He had three beloved great granddaughters who lit up his face and warmed his heart. He was a respected Elder in his home community of StarBlanket, and beyond.
I did not know Gerry when he was a young capable athlete, or the hardworking manager of the large StarBlanket Farm. Gerry’s health was never great when I knew him and he usually used a walker. It always amazed me how many things he attended despite his great difficulty moving around. I remember him as a quiet, very intelligent, very observant man – nobody’s fool. I don’t think Gerry missed much.
Although he was quiet, when he did have something to say, nothing could stop him from saying it. I remember a couple of those occasions. Once when StarBlanket Cree Nation held a day to commemorate residential school survivors at Lebret, Edith was supposed to speak. When the time came she could not. But with the help of his daughters and Edith, Gerry purposefully made his way to the front and he spoke powerfully about his residential school experience at Lebret. I wrote down what he said, but what sticks with me now is how indignant he was (incredulous really) when he remembered that the priests expected them to pray before breakfast, after breakfast – just about every minute of the day. How there was absolutely no recognition at all that the spiritual ways of his grandfather meant something. He would return home in the summer to go into the bush to learn his grandfather’s ways, then back to boarding school for 10 months learning that those ways were wrong.
On a happier occasion, at Gail and Sonny’s wedding, he called me over to explain that Edith was crying (with joy) because Sonny had gifted him with his best mare and foal, and because this was a return to the way it had been a long time ago. During the traditional ceremony, he spoke at length about this, and very eloquently. He was very moved by Sonny’s gift, and what it represented – regaining the old ways that had been forbidden and made illegal by my people.
My fondest memory of Gerry – one that always brings a smile to my face – took place at the Wahpimoostoosis Healing ceremonies that were held each year in August. I had taken part in a Sweatlodge Ceremony that morning, and was participating in the Feast where Gerry was one of the Elders that afternoon. During the feast, I could hardly keep my head up, and kept yawning – I was so sleepy from my time in the Sweat. After the feast was over, I was shaking the hands of the Elders and when I got to Gerry, he convulsed with laughter and told me how hilarious it was to watch this white girl almost fall asleep during the feast because the Sweat had been too much for me. He teased me without mercy! Honestly, I would have been insulted except that his glee and laughter was so darn contagious, I just cracked up too. I laugh every time I think of it.
Last year, Gail and I spoke a number of times together. I spoke trying to encourage other Canadians to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Gail had the hard part – she spoke as an intergenerational survivor – both her parents had attended residential schools and Gail shared how deeply this affected her. I learned a great deal about Gerry and about the powerful bond between Gerry and Gail – but these are Gail’s tales to tell, not mine. I am thinking about these stories as I remember Gerry today. I learned what a complex man Gerry Starr was, and something of his influence on many, many people.
Gerry was waiting for his residential school hearing. Like many Elders before him, he passed away before that could happen. I feel so sad about that. I am not sure that those hearings always offer much healing, but perhaps for some they offer a kind of closure. It seems ironic that today, all across Canada, has been designated by Indigenous people in Canada as NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER: HONOUR THE APOLOGY. The intention is to honour the children lost to and the adult survivors of residential schools, and to push the federal government to turn over all documentation related to the residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as ordered by the courts). I deeply wish that our Canadian government would honour the words of the Apology made in 2008.
Sometimes I have watched a dying person do great healing during their last days. I don’t know if that was the case with Gerry. I hope it was.
I have been feeling Gerry’s absence all day today. The world is a different place without him. I cannot imagine the Starr family without Gerry in their midst. I am feeling the difficulty of having two homes – this being my birth home and Saskatchewan being my chosen home. I want to be able to hug Gail and Edith and family, to take my brown buns (the buns that Gerry loved) and a good farm chicken, to be present as they honour this very special man in time honoured ways. I want to hear what is said, and I want to learn more who this complicated and special man was to others in his family, and in his community. I am 2800 kilometers away, which feels pretty far. But if I can’t be in Saskatchewan, this place where I feel the presence of my own ancestors, where I feel close to earth and lake and sky, is the next best place to give thanks for Gerry’s life, and to offer prayers of healing and peace for him and his big circle of love and family. I feel gratitude for knowing Gerry.