The term “knowledge keeper” has become common in recent years in discussion of Indian residential schools (IRS), unmarked graves, and missing children. The phrase may be defined in different ways, but it always refers to those versed in the traditions of First Nations, whether they are elders or have been instructed by elders.1 It is essentially a new term for those who know and pass on “oral tradition.”
Oral traditions are indispensable to human societies because they give meaning to our existence, foster identity, and convey rules of conduct. But no matter how important oral traditions may be, they are limited as sources for establishing historical facts.
All human memory is fallible, and that is just as true of First Nations as of other people. What we remember as happening years ago often turns out to be mistaken when we compare memories with other people or with other sources of information. The difficulty is compounded when memories are passed down across generations in the form of oral tradition, allowing misunderstandings to creep in.
When it is necessary to establish the truth of what really happened, it is unsafe to rely solely on individual memory or collective oral tradition. It is essential to compare multiple sources of information to winnow out fact from fiction. Historians, archeologists, and others who write about the past use written records, physical artifacts, DNA sequencing, and linguistic analysis as well as memory and oral tradition. Similarly, courts of law admit oral testimony but rely upon cross-examination and documentary evidence as a check upon memory. The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shows how “false memory syndrome” sent many people to jail, unjustly accused of Satanic child abuse in day care centres, based on inadequately scrutinized testimony of children, parents, psychologists, and social workers.2
It is, therefore, mistaken to rely upon the statements of so-called “survivors,” i.e., those who attended IRS, as the gold standard of evidence about what happened in these schools. Such statements are often based on childhood memories of what may have happened decades ago, or they may convey accounts received from other people such as friends, parents, and brothers and sisters.
Fortunately, we have many sources of evidence—documents that were composed contemporaneously with past events—that can be compared against each other and against oral tradition—to establish the historical truth about IRS. These include the reports of Indian Agents and school inspectors, the diaries and memoirs of teachers and missionaries, the observations of visitors, and the recollections of former students. Many of these sources can now be conveniently accessed through the website Indian Residential School Records – Native Residential Schools of Canada Researched, maintained by independent researcher Nina Green.
The public discussion of IRS abounds with lurid stories of children being shocked in electric chairs, drowned, thrown into furnaces, and roused in the middle of the night to dig graves for other children. So far, none of these stories, no matter how often repeated, have been corroborated with any form of objective evidence. In this highly emotional and politicized environment, nothing should be accepted as factual until multiple forms of evidence have been canvassed and compared.