A one-hour television documentary

In the middle of a life of adversity, she struggled to find the Great Spirit of her childhood within the Christian traditions that called to her heart

Gladys Cook measures less than five feet tall, a tiny 74-year-old sprite of a woman born in a teepee on the rolling grain fields of the Sioux Valley Reserve, west of Brandon, Manitoba. It’s hard to reconcile this vibrant lady glowing with an inner strength and calm, with the little girl she once was, frightened, ill and bloody, left on a cold school dormitory floor after the first of what would become a series of brutal rapes. It was an experience she wouldn’t speak of for over 40 years, her attacker’s “big blue eyes” forever burned in her memory.

Sadly, Cook’s story is not unique among aboriginal children attending Canadian residential schools during the last century. What is unique is Cook’s response to what became a life of pain and adversity, a response that not only transformed her own spirit, but continues to bring joy, healing and peace to scores of other people. “Topahdewin: The Gladys Cook Story” is award-winning film-maker Lisa Barry’s celebration of a faith journey, not just of one woman, but of the little known history of the Dakota people in Canada and the United States.

After meeting Cook in 1989, Barry recognized that this quietly determined native woman was the embodiment of the residential schools story in Canada, the human face of what has become, until recently, a neglected chapter in our history books. Barry also saw a woman who survived because of her faith, not so unusual, except that Cook has managed to seamlessly blend the spiritual teachings of her native heritage with her traditional Christian Anglican church-going upbringing.

Over the next 13 years, Barry continued to film her subject, establishing a relationship, and gradually uncovering the details of an astonishing life.

“Topahdewin: The Gladys Cook Story” begins with Cook’s early life in the Dakota farming community in western Manitoba. Born to hard-working farmers, she was loved and respected. At age four, as the federal government’s assimilation policy dictated, Cook was plucked from her home and sent to an Anglican-run residential school in Elkhorn Lake, Manitoba. She lived there until she was 16, allowed only to return home for a few weeks every summer. In a heart-wrenching moment captured by the camera, Cook remembers her grandmother giving her a beautiful string of beads before she left home. When she arrived at school the staff cut her braids and the beads from around her neck, the richly coloured balls rolling away across the floor. Told to throw the beads away, Cook managed to hide one in her mouth, treasuring it as a symbol of her family’s love.

When she was nine, Cook was raped at the school while she lay ill with the mumps. This was the first of several rapes by the same residential school staff member. Struggling with the pain, Cook remembers renouncing her Anglican faith.” I didn’t want their God. ‘You can have your God,’ I said. I’ll take the one my parents gave me, a better one, the Great Spirit.” Decades later at a school reunion, despite the fact that he never acknowledged his crimes, Cook forgave her attacker.

Between the horrifying picture of a frightened young girl and the courageous portrait of a mature woman lies a life’s journey sensitively captured by Barry’s camera. There is a marriage to an abusive, alcoholic man; an escape back home only to be told she no longer had one; the struggle to keep and raise her children;

and, fuelled by alcohol, the descent into despair. Barry reflects Cook’s story in the history of the Dakota people, a past marked by betrayal, starvation and incredible resilience.

“Topahdewin: The Gladys Cook Story” is also a life-affirming account of how Cook overcame her despair, rediscovering her faith, and, without any initial formal training, became an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. She describes the pivotal moment when she finally confronted her own childhood sexual abuse: “I began to yell, things were moving inside me,” she says. “I felt the same pain in my head and the blood run between my legs.” Barry recounts a faith-driven healing journey, an odyssey made even more remarkable because of Cook’s discovery of her gift to help others heal. Her work with native women, addicts, prisoners and survivors of abuse is an inspirational look at the difference one person can make.

With its artful use of archival footage and still photography combined with a haunting original score, this is a program that should be seen by all Canadians. Intimate and compelling, it is a story of a woman who has lived through a shameful chapter in our history, emerging to become an inspiring symbol of healing and hope.