First came the discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves at a burial site on a former Indian boarding school property in British Columbia. Then, just weeks later, came an even more appalling revelation: another 751 graves found at another former Indian school in Saskatchewan.
The graves are reminders of a horrific period in history when Indian children were removed from their families, sometimes by force, and packed into what in Canada, typically, were church-run residential schools. Thousands went missing. It is only now that we are beginning to learn the sad fate some of them met.
News of the mass graves has been agonizing for the Indigenous people of Canada, but the impact has also rippled out to tribal nations across the United States. Indian boarding schools represent a particularly shameful chapter in this country’s treatment of Native Americans. The schools were intended to sever children from everything familiar to them: families, tribes, culture, language, religion.
“This has been heart-wrenching for all of us,” Melanie Benjamin, chief of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, told an editorial writer. “It’s been very emotional for many Indian people in this country. If you look at the history of American Indians in this country, it’s not a good history. It’s been tragedy on tragedy, imposed on us over generations.”
There is no evidence to date that the atrocities that occurred at boarding schools in Canada also occurred here. But it should be noted that the graves in Canada were not discovered by accident. It’s been 20 years since the search for remains started at the Kamloops school (one of Canada’s largest) in British Columbia. It wasn’t until a tribe brought in ground-penetrating radar that the graves were found.
It makes sense for the U.S. to embark on a similar effort, given the parallels in the two nations. We applaud U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland for creating the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which will seek to identify possible burial sites. During a recent address to the National Congress of American Indians, Haaland, who is Indian, said she knew the process would be long, difficult and painful. “It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
Benjamin said tribal leaders in Minnesota will gather on Wednesday in Hinckley to begin processing the latest tragedy. “It’s devastating news,” she said. “It hurts. When you think about how many of our grandparents attended these types of boarding schools. They took away our language, our religion, no respect for treaty rights. That’s still happening. When does it stop? But first we need to start with a better understanding of the historical perspective of the boarding schools.”
To that end, Benjamin said the gathering will feature a noted expert on the schools, Brenda Child, a professor at the University of Minnesota and member of the Red Lake Nation. Child, speaking to an editorial writer, said she has studied Indian boarding schools her entire career. “I always knew there were terrible stories that came out of Kamloops,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot to learn and understand.”
The search in Canada has been a long one, but ultimately a nation is better for dealing forthrightly with its past. The U.S. is right to start that process here.