A spontaneous project where middle school students were invited to make 215 little clay pots in honour of the children found at Kamloops Indian Residential School ended up growing to something bigger last week.
Chilliwack potter and Vedder middle school parent, Cathy Terepocki, said she wanted to offer kids a tangible way for them to process the grim news. So she contacted the school, told them her idea and was invited to bring the project to the kids, along with locally harvested clay, on Tuesday (June 1).
“The clay comes from the Chilliwack River, this provided a connection to the land,” Terepocki said. “One step towards reconciliation is to continue to learn and honour Indigenous culture after so much was erased during the era of residential schools.”
What she thought would be handfuls of kids here and there dropping by on their lunch break that day turned into teachers bringing their entire class down to the courtyard to make small pinch pots. (Pinch pots are simple, hand-made pottery pieces and the name comes from the pinching method used to create them.)
“It was just a simple act and a way of processing the news and also honouring the children,” Terepocki said.
That simple act went a long way.
Her vision was for 215 pots to be made, but by the end of the day more than 500 were created.
She connected with Indigenous enhancement teachers Val Tosoff (Vedder middle) and Christine Seymour (Chilliwack middle) to make the project happen.
“It means a lot. It’s very special,” Seymour said. “The collaboration, that’s what I think means most. We’re working together. That’s the only way we’re going to heal and recover is if we move forward together and that’s what this represents.”
The hundreds of pots made of earthenware clay have been laid out on two folding tables at the entrance to Vedder middle. Their reddish-orange colour pops against the tables’ dull grey surface.
“My grandma went to Kamloops Residential School and she had a really hard life, so when I look at these pots, that’s who I think of. When I heard the land acknowledgement over the PA for the first time in our school, that’s who I thought of.”
She spoke about other relatives who also went to residential school whom she thinks of when she looks at the small red, clay pots that can be held in one’s hand.
“It surreal, I don’t know how else to explain it,” Seymour said. “It gives you that peace you’ve waited for (but) we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
She said the real healing begins when one’s story has been heard.
“I think the healing process has begun. This is symbolic because that’s what it feels like – there’s no words,” Seymour said. “It is profound the feeling that I’ve gotten… it’s an uplifting, heartwarming feeling, but at the same time a settling feeling because now it’s happening. The people know now.”
The pots are all unique and vary in size. Most look like little dishes, but some are shaped like leaves or boats. Rough edges are seen on some while kids’ fingerprints are visible in others.
“That’s also a symbolic part of this. They were individual children,” Terepocki said. “Interestingly, most of them are vessels. They all hold something. There’s so much meaning.”
There are “so many different layers” to the project, Tosoff said. The pots not only represent the children who died at residential schools, but also those who survived, the parents of the children, and the survivors’ kids and grandkids, she added.
“Those are the people now who are inherited with this history, this legacy of the residential school system, and dealing with the intergenerational trauma that this caused,” Tosoff said.
They are not sure how or where the pots will be displayed, but they are inviting families of Indigenous students who have been directly impacted by residential schools to give their input. One idea is to return the pots back to the river from which they came. The pots, which were sun-dried and then fired in a kiln, are not glazed and would simply break down over time outside.
Hundreds of students took part in the project and all of the 500-plus pots were made in just one day.
“We always have to refer back to the cause of bringing more awareness about truth and reconciliation, about what it means to be an ally and about what everyday Canadians can do to be a part of reconciliation,” Tosoff said.
Seymour agreed and added these pots are part of an important shift that has finally come as a result of the 215 children found in Kamloops.
“We really need to make a shift… we can’t keep going in this direction. And that’s what I feel like this is, there’s a shift happening. This gives me hope,” Seymour said.