Indigenous families in Canada, US traumatized by discoveries of graves at schools

Jul 14, 2021, 10:18 AM | Updated: Jul 15, 2021, 6:44 am
Indigenous schools, graves...
A group portrait of Indigenous people posed on the grass outside the Cushman Indian School on the Puyallup Indian Reservation near Tacoma in June 1918. (Courtesy Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection)
(Courtesy Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection)

Discoveries of unmarked graves at former so-called “residential schools” for Indigenous children in British Columbia and other parts of Canada have traumatized many families, shaken that country’s government, and brought new scrutiny to decades-old reports of missing and abused kids.

And there are likely equally devastating parallels to the story on the south side of the U.S.-Canadian border, too.

In late May, the Kamloops Indian Band in British Columbia announced that they had discovered the unmarked graves of 215 children on the grounds of the old Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 to 1978.

It’s a horrific discovery that’s not surprising to some, but that appears to be forcing a reckoning between Indigenous people and everyone else in that country. Other unmarked graves have been discovered in Canada, including earlier this week on Penelakut Island in the Gulf Islands, not far from the American San Juan Islands.

Residential schools in Canada were government funded and run by religious organizations, including the Catholic church. Many people believe the schools were part of a systematic effort to extinguish Indigenous culture – “kill the Indian and save the man” is the old saying. Indigenous children would be separated from their families, from their language, from their spiritual practices, and from their communities. The schools were also places where physical and sexual abuse clearly happened, and where countless Indigenous kids ultimately went missing.

The discovery in Kamloops and subsequent revelations are being taken seriously by most Canadians. The Canadian government has set up a trauma hotline for survivors and anyone else affected by the news, and the media coverage has been intense. Canada Day – the country’s national founding holiday on July 1 – was somber this year. The country seems to have lost its taste for celebrations, and it seems as though there is a reckoning at hand in Canada.

A similar system of schools existed in the United States, including in Washington and Oregon. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Indigenous person to hold that job, announced the “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative” in late June, which is described in a press release as a “comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

“Secretary Haaland directs the Department to prepare a report detailing available historical records, with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites, relating to the federal boarding school program in preparation for a future site work,” the press release continued. “This work will occur under the supervision of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.”

With more discoveries in Canada, and with Secretary Haaland’s announcement, the sense among many is that the United States may be headed for a similar reckoning as north of the border.

Michael Finley is a former tribal chair and is a historian for the Colville Tribes. He told KIRO Radio that the stories of abused and missing kids – and the true intent of government and church-run schools for Indigenous children – are common knowledge in tribal families and communities.

“It’s a very traumatizing era in our history that isn’t well known to the general public, but it should be,” Finley said. “But it’s only finds like this [in Kamloops and elsewhere in Canada] where people finally start to pay attention to what we’ve always been saying. Our voices have been muted by a lot of different efforts, but this is a very systematic, very deliberate attempt to wipe us off the map.”

Like many Indigenous people, Finley speaks from personal knowledge. His father attended the Pascal Sherman Indian School in Omak and was sexually abused by a priest there, suffered physical abuse, and witnessed violent abuse of other students.

One of Finley’s great aunts has shared stories with him of when her sister was sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

“She talked about her older sister that got sent off to Carlisle, and they didn’t hear for weeks that she had died,” Finley said. “And the only answer they got when they said that she died way over at Carlisle was that, ‘Oh, she took a shower. She put her head out the window to talk to somebody from her dorm room, and it was midwinter and she caught pneumonia and died.’”

“And there was no more answer than that,” Finley said, describing what sounds like an all too common indifference toward the health and safety of Indigenous children, and a callous disregard for their families.

Michael Finley says Indigenous family stories like this are the rule, not the exception.

“There’s many stories like this that are painful, and they run through our generations today, through their historic trauma, that a lot of people don’t want to recognize or talk about,” Finley said. “But it’s very real, and I guarantee you that if it happened in any other scenario, there’d be headlines everywhere. But for some reason, because it happened to native people, nobody wants to give the same level of credence that they would otherwise.”

Finley is clearly traumatized by the impact of the violence inflicted on his family members, but he’s also committed to telling the stories as a way of defying the intent of that violence.

“I hate to say it that way, but it’s true, and we’re the survivors of that historic trauma,” Finley said. “But we’re here to tell the stories, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Shelly Boyd is Finley’s cousin and also lives on the Colville Reservation, where she coordinates a legal effort related to a long struggle over traditional lands in Canada. She’s heard stories from her mother about the schools, and observed throughout her adult life how the larger community has downplayed or denied the reality of violence and other abuse that the “Kamloops 215” have brought to the forefront.

“The message that I feel that we have had, generationally, was that either that didn’t happen or you’re exaggerating it,” Boyd said.

The Colville Reservation in North Central Washington is separated from other nearby Indigenous groups by the international border, but despite the boundary, people like Michael Finley and Shelly Boyd remain geographically — and culturally — close to people who attended the school in Kamloops.

“As Sinixt people our connection to Kamloops is that it’s the territory right next to our territory in Canada,” Boyd said. “And I 100% believe that some of our people are part of those unmarked graves.”

“And there is no finding out who they are,” Boyd said.

A spokesman with the Department of Interior told KIRO Radio on Tuesday that there are not yet any specifics to share about activities or a timeline for Secretary Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. In the Evergreen State, there are records to comb through – at institutions such as the National Archives at Sand Point; there are families to talk to for gathering personal stories of missing children; and there may even be archaeological field work like what’s happening in Canada.

Craig Bill is executive director of Governor Jay Inslee’s Governor’s Commission on Indian Affairs.

He shared with KIRO Radio a list of 13 federal Indian boarding schools in Washington, many of which were in operation from roughly the 1880s to as recently as sometime in the years after World War II. The biggest ones in Western Washington were Tulalip near Marysville and Cushman near Tacoma, though children from Washington were also sent to the Chemawa School in Oregon. There were also a number of day schools on or near reservations that may or may not face the same kind of scrutiny as the boarding schools.

Many more details about the Indian schools in Washington are contained in a report prepared by former MOHAI librarian and noted historian of Evergreen State school buildings Carolyn Marr.

Craig Bill says his office will likely be closely involved with the Interior Department and with tribes in Washington as the initiative and specific steps take shape.

Bill has his own family stories about the impact and trauma from the schools here. He emphasized how critical it is that in the effort to quantify and investigate what happened in Washington, that families and communities aren’t further traumatized.

“There’s still families out there, and there still is existing trauma, and there is existing impact” from the violence, missing children, and the discovery of unmarked graves, Bill said. “To revisit this and to have this discussion, you’re still opening up these wounds.”

“And so I think that you definitely need to be very sensitive to that,” Bill said.

A detailed report on the Kamloops discovery is due out on Thursday. One difference between the U.S. and Canada is that many residential schools north of the border remained in operation until late in the 20th century, including the time of the family separation/child removal policy that came to be called “The Sixties Scoop.”

Both Michael Finley and Craig Bill are certain that unmarked graves will also be discovered in Washington. Whether the numbers are the same magnitude as in Canada is harder to say, and will likely only be revealed by a comprehensive study.

In the meantime, what can people in the Evergreen State do with the revelations from Canada, and with the horrific accounts of trauma – the violence itself, plus the generational effects – right here in Washington, from people like Michael Finley, Shelly Boyd, and Craig Bill?

Finley asks that people listen and hear the stories, and then try to understand.

“Have them put themselves in our shoes,” said Finley, speaking to Washingtonians who might not have a personal connection to Indigenous families or communities.

“You’re sitting there, living the same life that your people have lived for thousands of years, and this new group of people comes in saying, ‘we don’t like how you guys are living and we’re going to take your kids,’” Finley said.

“We’re going to move them 100, 200, 300 miles away, and they can’t speak your guys’ language anymore,” he continued. “We’re going to cut their hair, which is part of our culture. They can’t practice anything they’ve done before. We’re going to make you do things the way we want you to do them.”

“Imagine today if that happened in America,” Finley said, “where we had somebody come in and do that to their children, and ask them if they’d still be OK with it.”

“They won’t be,” Finley said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Indigenous families in Canada, US traumatized by discoveries of graves at schools