I talked to Gerry Oleman, who also goes by Gerry Oldman, a member of the St’át’imc Nation from Tsal'alh (Shalalth, interior of B.C.) in March for the First Nations Forward Facebook Live interview series.
Oldman is the host of the Teachings in the Air podcast, dedicated to Indigenous men's health and wellness. He has been a change agent for First Nations communities and organizations since 1976, facilitating more than 645 workshops across Canada and the U.S.
I happened to ask Oldman to join in conversation at the height of the response to the police killing of George Floyd, an innocent Black man, when people took to the streets to condemn racism and police brutality. Buildings and hearts were on fire and it was a fire Oldman knew for a significant part of his life.
He used to know hate very well, he told me, answering a question about where we go from here, with a series of stories.
“I grew up in a residential school,” Oldman told me. “But before that, I was in a wonderful home, I had wonderful parents and siblings. All of a sudden, I was taken out of that environment and put into residential school, which was ruled by terror.”
The violence and emotional, mental and sexual abuse that took place in the schools run by Roman Catholic and other churches from 1931 to 1996 has been well-documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Trauma means to be wounded,” he said, speaking with empathy, honesty and separation. “My mind and body were wounded. It was such a powerful assimilation process — to put down anything Indigenous, to convince us this is civilization, this Christianity… this is the way of living.”
Oldman said if it were just the mental abuse, his life would have been more manageable.
“When I left, I had that anger, that fear, that depression — the three parent emotions of a traumatized person,” he explained. “I thought when I reached Grade 12, I would be free. But your mind remembers, and your body remembers.”
When you're imprisoned by the past, you function as a memory bank, Oldman said, and miss what's going on around you. Oldman looked for escapes, and was called a fall-down drunk and a stoner from people who hadn't a clue what he'd gone through.
“The spirit is what holds the body together,” Oldman explained. “An indicator of a sound mind means we can teach you, because your mind is clear, and your body, you can pick berries, and do your tasks. A sound body is disease-free, you have physical strength and endurance.”
And when your spirit is nice, you have an incredible will to live, he said.
“The baby is a perfect example of a Buddha,” Oldman said. “They don't think. They're there, their little belly is sticking out, they touch everything, taste, everything is an adventure… they are fully present.”
That's what we all hunger for, he said, and by his late twenties, Oldman's hunger grew stronger than his memories, and he got sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Letting go of what's not yours to carry
Oldman asked for help. He went to elders in his community, he was stripped down and sent out. He was sent back into the old ways, into song and ceremony, sacrifice and strengthening. He started running again, and he eventually learned to experience the beauty of a sun setting behind a mountain range.
When you're depressed, Oldman explained, it's like you're numb to beauty.
Oldman traded alcohol and drugs for work, he realized later, but he was getting his body clean, and he had an unprecedented focus that needed direction. Workaholism leads to fatigue, he said, but before he burned out completely, he met a woman who taught him how to cast out his demons.
Working as an addictions counsellor, Oldman met a healer who was speaking at a workshop. The healer heeded Oldman's request to have a look at him — she told him his energy was shooting up straight from his head.
“She said, 'You must be tired, because your energy is supposed to be like this, an egg all around you,'” Oldman said, holding his arms out in the shape.
The healer looked at Oldman and asked if he was sexually abused as a child. Up until that day, he had never mentioned it to anyone, ever.
“Those men are still in you,” she told Oldman. If you rub diesel or gasoline on your skin, it goes into your body, Oldman said, and though you try to remove it, there will be remnants. “You need to get rid of those men,” she said.
The healer had Oldman put his hands up and close his eyes. As soon as you see those men, she said, scream, do what you need to do, and cast them off.
And Oldman did just that, with tears streaming down his face.
“You did it, congratulations,” the woman said before leaving. “No debrief or anything,” Oldman said. But he felt happy standing there.
His nightmares had stopped. But he knew that was just one important step in the journey of reclaiming his authenticity, to cast them off and refuse to carry around what's not his.
“Now I had to deal with the habits I developed living with PTSD — not telling the truth, withdrawing, avoiding, not knowing how to communicate, how to listen, how to live with people,” Oldman said.
Because hate is heavy, he said. And he had a lot of it. He was angry about the Canadian government and the Catholic Church. He was angry about white people, he hated them, and he hated Christians, and he realized he needed to deal with it.
“I hated British people and their accents. I hated everything about Brits,” Oldman told me in unattached honesty.
Then he was invited to London for his sister-in-law's wedding, and after refusing to go a number of times, he reluctantly bought a suit and set his mind into doing a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
In order to heal, you must forgive the ones who hurt you, Oldman said. And to forgive, means to let go.
“So now I needed to forgive these British people, because I'm treating them like colonizers, and they're not really colonizers,” he said.
Oldman travelled to London to forgive the Queen and her British subjects. And then he went to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to sprinkle red earth and drop eagle down to cover up the shame and protect people from abuse by the Catholic Church, he told me.
Wearing his headband, a “Decolonize” T-shirt, and holding his rattle, he remembered reading the words outside one entrance: “Rome is open to everyone of every faith. You are welcome here.”
“I said, 'Oh, those are beautiful words,'” he told me, and he had his ceremony, with tears in his eyes, because the hate was so intense.
Later, Oldman travelled to Spain to have a few words with Christopher Columbus.
“Chris, I said, you really opened Pandora's box for Indigenous people. We didn't have suicide, poverty, alcohol, we didn't have smallpox or regenerative diseases. We didn't know what hunger was,” Oldman told Columbus' body. “I'm here to forgive you,” Oldman said, and he did the ceremony at his tomb.
Oldman wants to visit the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa to let go of the Canadian government.
Now, Oldman can see the sun reflect off pine needles on trees. He can see reflections he was blinded to before. And he can see himself.
“We have a ceremony where I'm from, which means to look at yourself. That's what we call our sweat lodge, a place to look at yourself,” Oldman said. And he has never stopped looking.
Oldman shares his stories regularly on his podcast. He wants to leave something for the children, he said, so they have a better life, just as somebody did for him.