A journey to recover a hidden history

SIX NATIONS – When Gary Cooper sat down for an interview, it was initially to speak about his grandfather, veteran Lewis Wilson, a sapper for the Six Nations Indian 114th Battalion who was killed in action on August 31st, 1918. As the conversation evolved, Gary began to tell his story of discovering his native background and uncovering his family’s history on Six Nations territory.

Gary, now 72 years-old, revealed that he did not know of his Onkwehon:we heritage until after his mother passed away when he was 28 years old. Having been raised with no understanding or knowledge of his background, Gary wanted to know more and began speaking with family members about their history. A cousin disclosed that her father (Gary’s uncle) and his mother went to the same residential school. Gary then decided to visit the residential school, the Brantford Mohawk Institute or “mushhole” as it was referred to by those forced to attend it, where it was believed she went. He came across a registration book and found that his mother, Beulah Wilson, had indeed attended the school from 1915-1920.

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He and his family began to enquire about his mother’s academic work and character while enrolled, contacting government agencies in Ottawa, but had little success. They were told that no information about his mother could be released.
He recently visited the “mushhole” again, trying to uncover more information from their records, but apparently the government had taken it all away after the influx of claims by people. Gary studied what little information he could get about his mother and uncle, and even though they were both registered at the same time, there was no information about him.

“See, there’s my mother’s name right there, Beulah Wilson, and her brother’s name isn’t in there cause he was getting beaten up all the time…there’s nothing about him in there, and apparently he was supposed to be a real militant native…you go to the library now and I don’t think you can get this information.” Gary did uncover some information from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Indian Affairs Branch in Ottawa. In 1953, when his mother married a white man living off reserve the department told her that she was no longer an Indian. Gary was the only one of her five children that filled out the numerous and extensive government paper work regarding his native heritage.

Gary lived his life for almost 30 years before discovering his own family history, and began uncovering information that the government would rather keep hidden. As is evidenced by the fact that he cannot retrieve information about his own mother’s life. Gary described how the government, which victimized his mother, still gets to keep her story and records locked up in an archive in Ottawa. Canada and Indigenous peoples in Canada are currently participating in a Truth and Reconcilliation process yet people and their family members searching for lost connections and family history are denied access to their records.

For his part Gary is dedicated to continuing to investigate and understand the lives of his ancestors. He is keen to bring public attention to both those who suffered through residential schools and the Onkwehonweh soliders like his grandfather who made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefield.

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