Flags at the Eagle Butte Veterans Memorial Park and across Cheyenne River will fly at half-mast for 215 hours from June 3 to June 12 to honor the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, late last month. Chairman Harold Frazier announced the observance in a letter on Thursday.
The discovery rocked the globe and reverberated across Native communities in South Dakota, causing many to pause and reflect. “Words of anger are not needed when our feelings are with us forever,” remarked one person upon seeing the flags at half-staff.
Chairman Frazier’s press release eloquently said, “Those children represented the dreams of our ancestors and the hopes of our people. Sadly, none of them were allowed the opportunity [to] fulfill the destiny into which they were born. The cost of the loss is incalculable. We will never know the many families and relatives that would have walked this land with us had they survived the onslaught of genocide.”
The unmarked mass burial site was found on the school’s property over the weekend of May 22-23 using radar equipment. Chief Rosanne Casimir (Tkemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation) announced the discovery on May 27.
“It’s a harsh reality and it’s our truth, it’s our history,” Chief Casimir said at a news conference. “And it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove. To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history.”
History of boarding schools
Prior to the discovery, the Kamloops Indigenous Boarding School only had 51 documented school-related deaths in its official records, according to a report by CBS News. The Kamloops school was one of approximately 140 Indigenous boarding schools across Canada. The official register for all of Canada states that 3,213 children died while in custody of Indigenous schools. Without a doubt the real numbers are much higher.
President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Fawn Sharp said, “These were lawful actions for nearly 100 years by both the United States and Canada. A new era of accountability starts with a genuine commitment to truth and reconciliation with tribal nations, and with the formation of a formal Commission to study the impacts of the Indian Boarding School Policy. We call on the federal government to finally answer for these transgressions against Native children and families.”
Similar horror stories exist from American Indigenous schools, but no actions have yet been taken here in the States. It is estimated that only approximately 10% of U.S. citizens have even heard of the Indian boarding school era. The United States has yet to issue any apologies or reparations to Indigenous peoples.
The Canadian schools were modeled after similar American schools created by Richard Henry Pratt, such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pratt is famous for the adage, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The schools orchestrated cultural genocide by stripping Indigenous children of their language, culture and family connections. Children were removed from their families by acts of law.
A legacy of injury and pain
While there are those who remember their time at the schools fondly, there are many more survivors of physical, psychological, sexual and spiritual violations perpetrated at the schools.
In his book “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” David Treuer says, “significant portions of three entire generations of Indians died in the boarding schools, and countless more were damaged by them.” To this day, the legacy of the boarding schools causes cycles of PTSD, alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide that persist in Indigenous communities on both sides of the 49th Parallel.
The deplorable conditions in the schools have been documented by government officials in both countries without consequences to schools or administrators. As far back as 1928 the Meriam Report concluded that American Indian children were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools than the rest of the children in America. Scientists were known to conduct experiments on the children, studying the impact of and even causing rampant malnutrition among students.
Many of the Canadian schools were run by religious entities, most often affiliated with the Catholic church. Between 1945 and 1955 the Canadian government took over control of many of the schools from the church. The boarding schools began to close down in the late 1960s, but the last Canadian Indigenous boarding school did not close until 1996.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough, is not enough for the children who died, for the families or for the survivors and communities.” He has spoken on record regarding the need to rectify the situation for the families, survivors and communities.
Call for reparations
Trudeau, Indigenous communities worldwide, the UN, and lawmakers are all putting the pressure on. They are calling for the Catholic church to issue apologies and, if the perpetrators and accomplices are still alive, for criminal charges to be filed so that reparations can be made and justice served for the crimes committed against survivors and their families.
The Canadian government made some strides in financial reparations for its Indigenous citizens in recent years, and has paid out more than $1.6 billion to survivors of the schools.
Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada department earmarked approximately $34 million in 2019 to support efforts over three years to look into the deaths and disappearances of children missing from the Canadian Indigenous boarding schools. To date not much has been done.
The Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a group formed in 2009 to collect witness and survivor statements from residents of the Indian Residential Schools, recommended 94 calls to action in 2015. Statements document severe neglect, maltreatment, malnutrition and suicide as the reasons for the demise of so many children in the care of the government and church. The calls to action seek to provide remedy and healing.
Difficulty in ongoing research
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, explained some of the difficulty in identifying the children and the cause of death. She said there is ample evidence of inadequate records. For example, some children were recorded with no first or last names, such as “Indian Girl No. 237.”
Turpel-Lafond said misspelling of cultural names, assigning new names in English or French, and anglicized versions of native names mean records are difficult to navigate.
Regarding the discovery in Kamloops, Turpel-Lafond said, “Mass graves are a legacy of conflict and human rights violations in other parts of the world — such as Srebrenica, Bosnia and Iraq.” She continued, “We need to show survivors that we take this discovery seriously and treat it with respect.”
According to Yuliya Talmazan, reporting for NBC news, Turpel-Lafond called on the government to appoint a special rapporteur, or UN-style independent expert, to bring international standards to Canada when it comes to mass burial sites.
Katherine A. Morton, an instructor and researcher in anti-colonial and Indigenous studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland, stated that hundreds of graves have been found at school sites before, although this latest discovery is particularly large. In addition to unmarked graves at the schools, many school sites also purposely included cemeteries, which were not included in plans for white boarding schools of the time period.
Research continues to be hard due to the fact that many of the former school properties have been sold off, repurposed or redeveloped.