By Tamara Jager Stewart
Editor’s note: In Canada, the schools are referred to as “residential schools” and in the U.S., the most-used term is “Indian boarding schools.” For the purposes of this article, these two terms are used interchangeably.
Discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former Canadian residential schools for Native Americans, while probably shocking to many non-Natives, may have come as little surprise to Indigenous peoples who lost relatives to a policy that methodically removed Indigenous children from their homes, tribes, and cultures. Now similar discoveries are being made in the United States. Until quite recently, the government had failed to acknowledge the existence of such a policy or the extent to which it has disrupted and traumatized Indigenous communities.
Over the course of a century and a half—from 1819 to the 1970s—religious and government-run institutions in Canada and the U.S. sought to assimilate Indigenous children into a colonized country by stripping them of their culture and identities—with devastating effects. According to national studies in the U.S. and Canada, nearly 83% of Native school-age children were forced to join the residential school system by 1926. Often assigned numbers rather than names and regularly kidnapped from their homes, survivors routinely describe the physical and emotional abuse they suffered for speaking their native languages or practicing traditions. The impact of forced assimilation has had far-reaching effects on generations of Native peoples.
Across Canada, Roman Catholic missionaries ran residential schools for more than 150,000 Indigenous children, where some 6,000 are said by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) to have died from diseases and abuse. In 2008, Canada established the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which transferred its records to the NCTR in 2015. In addition to hosting national events to promote awareness and education, the TRC undertook extensive research that included testimony from survivors, their families, community members, and former school staff, as well as the preparation of a comprehensive report on the policies and operations of the schools and their impacts. “Research and education are crucial pieces to ensure survivors’ voices are heard and amplified, and that the legacy of Canada’s residential school system is studied, understood and, most importantly, remembered,” said Brenda Gunn, academic and research director for the NCTR.
The Canadian Commission has served as an important framework for U.S. legislation regarding boarding schools and in 2020, U.S. Secretary for the Interior Deb Haaland established the nonprofit National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). NABS aims to identify former boarding school sites, the location of known and possible burial sites, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were taken there. This May, NABS released its first report, naming 523 boarding schools supported or run by the federal government where at least 500 Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children died. That number is expected to rise as research continues. Similar to Canadian efforts, U.S. tribes and state agencies are increasingly employing remote sensing programs to locate the remains of Native children who died in these institutions and return them to their homelands, where possible.