Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — A sea of more than 150 people — many dressed in orange shirts and waving signs — marched through Minneapolis Friday to remember the victims of Indian boarding schools.

The rainy morning ended just before the Boarding School Survivor and Victim Memorial March began about 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 24, at the Little Earth Residents Association. The march continued through the heart of the Native community to end at the Powwow Grounds coffee shop along Franklin Avenue.

Many remembered family members who attended boarding schools, including those who never returned home.

“Many of us carry the trauma and pain in ourselves and family lines,” said Marisa Miakonda Cummings, Umoⁿhoⁿ/Omaha, president and chief executive of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “I am the granddaughter of a Haskell Institute survivor. I am the great-granddaughter of both a Carlisle Institute survivor and Genoa Institute survivor.

“While my grandparents experienced the trauma and abuse of the boarding schools, they were resilient survivors and maintained our language and our way of life to the best of their abilities,” she said.

A poster marks the march and gathering on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to remember the victims of Indian boarding schools. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

“I am honored to come from such strong and beautiful people — people that carried the violence they experienced at the hands of the settler state and also carried our way of life forward.”

The march was among a growing number of events leading up to Thursday, Sept. 30, a day of remembrance in the U.S. for boarding school survivors being held in conjunction with Canada’s National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Events are scheduled throughout the upcoming week, including an orange shirt day on Thursday.

The march was led and coordinated by the resource center, with contributions from the Little Earth Residents Association, American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, the American Indian Community Development Corporation, American Indian Center, the Ahn Dah Young Center, the Division of Indian Work and the Tiwahe Foundation.

Spiritual leader Dorene Day, Bois Forte Ojibwe, who spoke to the crowd Friday, said the healing must continue.

“There is no one that isn't affected by the boarding school system,” Day told Indian Country Today. “Today we are reclaiming our way of being in the world. Our spiritual, cultural, and traditional ways. We are standing. We have a right to be who we are and feel good about who we are.”

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Mitch Walking Elk, Cheyenne and Arapaho, was another spiritual leaders who attended the march.

“I’m very happy that the issues surrounding the boarding school are at long last being addressed,” he said. “Those with no voice previously today were given one. The gathering and march itself was very empowering and involved numerous youth.”

Remembering for those who couldn’t

Artist Josie Hoffman, Grand Portage Ojibwe, a teaching artist assistant and mentor at the Native Youth Arts Collective in Minneapolis, penned the slogan for the march, “loving, learning & remembering our traditions for those before us who couldn't.”

Hoffman learned as a child the impact the boarding schools had on her family and community.

“The quote just came from my heart,” Hoffman said. “I grew up hearing the stories of how the boarding schools had affected my family and so many others … We made this design to honor the victims and survivors of boarding schools.”

The slogan was included on screened designs created by artist and filmmaker Courtney, Anishinaabekwe, who is also producing an art installation with help from the community for the former site of a Native homeless encampment, “The Wall of Forgotten Natives” in Minneapolis.

A special design for T-shirts and other clothing was created for a  march of remembrance on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of boarding school victims. Among those who got the screened designs were, from left, Jolene Jones, Pam Johns, Simone Hunter, Isabel Diaz, Khaloni Fremont, Shantelle Neadeau and Jackie Neadeau. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

Cochran works with the Native Youth Arts Collective within Little Earth as a teaching artist and peer mentor, and wanted to include student voices. She worked with Hoffman to create the design and screen-printing.

“We chose to honor and remember all Indigenous children across Turtle Island,” Cochran said. “We included some of our sacred medicines along with a beautiful quote by Josie. We screen-printed posters for four days at Little Earth and invited all community members to bring a shirt, bandana, ribbon skirt or sweatshirt for us to screen print on for them.”

Cochran and Hoffman both attended the march Friday with the design and message scattered among the crowd.

Lisa Bellanger, White Earth Ojibwe, also attended the march. She is working to locate graves of Indigenous children at the former site of the Pipestone Indian Training School in Pipestone, Minnesota.

“Our long-term goals are to create a memorial site honoring and remembering the children lost to boarding schools,” Bellanger said. “The children deserve a proper burial and beautiful monument.”

Cummings opted not to speak to the crowd Friday to allow survivors to speak instead.

“Much of my own life has been spent healing from the effects of genocidal colonial practices by re-learning our way of life,” she told Indian Country Today. “In a country founded on the principles of freedom of religion, we know as the original people of this land, that our freedom to live in connection to creation and as stewards of our earth mother, were stripped through the policies of the settler state.”

Marisa Miakonda Cummings, Umoⁿhoⁿ/Omaha, president and chief executive of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, was one of the leaders of the Boarding School Survivor and Victim Memorial March in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that drew more than 150 supporters on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Marisa Cummings)

She said the boarding schools affected not only the use of the Indigenous languages but also their family relationships, clan relationships and communities.

“We stand here today in solidarity and strength to honor those who survived and those who never made it home and lost their lives at these violent government and religious institutions,” she said. “We stand here today in community and in love to heal and to make a statement that we will no longer tolerate settler colonial violence. We are strong in our spiritual practices. We are strong as we re-learn our language and spiritual connection to creation. We are strong as we come together in an urban intertribal community.

“We look to our future generations to continue the beautiful and necessary work to carry our way of life forward. We are older than America. And we will always be here.”

Untold stories

The remembrances and growing international attention to the number of children who died at boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada is bringing out stories that may never have been told.

Kirby Metoxen, Oneida, discovered six Oneida children who died at the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania after making an impromptu stop at the site.

He and two non-Native friends were on their way to a horse auction when they saw a sign about the school. The friends did not know about Carlisle, so they decided to stop. Metoxen said he walked through the cemetery expecting to see the names of other tribal members, but found some instead with his own family name.

“I wasn’t prepared to go to the cemetery and see our own,” he said. “The markers had the name of the person, tribe, and one date — the date of death.”

Marchers wore orange and waved signs in remembrance of the victims of Indian boarding schools on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, In Minneapolis, Minnesota. Events are scheduled throughout the U.S. and Canada leading up to the Day of Remembrance on Sept. 30, 2021, which is also orange shirt day. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

He began researching the children whose grave markers he’d seen, and worked to bring three of them home. It was a rough journey for him, too.

“I was asked to go into the tents where the children were disinterred,” he said. “I broke down like this was my own child. I kept thinking the children knew they were sick and were going to die and were asking where their family was.”

“I still can’t believe people don’t know the stories,” he said.

Artley Skenandore, also Oneida, is principal at the Oneida Nation High School in Oneida, Wisconsin.

“As Indigenous individuals, families and communities we all hold some connection to the boarding school/residential school experience,” Skenandore said. “Within our communities it is a bundle of stories of what happened in a time vacuum of untold traumatizing experiences for individual members of our families. It is the deafening silence of elders that never spoke about their experience.”

Skenandore said communities are now beginning to understand the impact and damage those experiences caused for families and communities.

“The spectrum of stories represents a generational soul wound from the painful scars of inflicted behaviors and finally the disclosure of how many of our family members never returned home,” Skenandore said. “The greatest loss of every tribal nation is the collective loss of joy and celebration of being together as a family.”

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