Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The world was shocked to hear about the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British, Columbia Canada.

For many Indigenous people, however, the most shocking element of the story is not the discovery of the graves but the fact that it’s taken so long for non-Natives to acknowledge the grim details of this long-ignored history of Indian boarding and residential schools, a story that is part of both U.S. and Canadian history.

Moreover, the news in Canada begs the question: Are there similar burial sites at U.S. Indian boarding schools?

Researchers, advocates and allies agree with a resounding, “Yes.”

Researchers say that most of the more than 350 U.S. Indian boarding schools — more than double the 130 or so schools in Canada — have cemeteries associated with them. According to findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, convened as part of the country’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were placed in schools from the 1870s to 1996. The commission estimates that up to 6,000 children died at the schools from disease, abuse, starvation and other ills.

Shoes sit on the Eternal flame in recognition of discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, on parliament hill in Ottawa, Ontario, on Monday May 31, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

Unlike Canada, the U.S. has never had an accurate accounting of the number of Indian boarding schools here, the number of children who attended or those who died at the schools. According to data collected by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, by 1900, there were about 20,000 children in boarding schools; by 1925, that number had more than tripled.

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Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, former executive director of the coalition, heard many stories of children buried in unmarked graves outside of various school cemeteries during her research into the history of Indian boarding schools and in interviews with survivors.

“Somebody needs to come to these schools with ground-penetrating radar and look for those babies,” she told Indian Country Today.

The coalition is now working to gather information with the help of private grants.

“We did a Freedom of Information request for this information from the Bureau of Indian Affairs; they were unable to answer,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive officer of the coalition and a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation. “So, we’ve been doing the research ourselves, gathering information from the National Archives and Records Administration, digitizing it, and plan to make it available to people online.”

Finding the unmarked graves

To date, little has been done to locate graves at U.S. boarding school sites. In 2016, Marsha Small, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, used radar to look for unmarked graves at the Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Oregon, as part of her master’s thesis at Montana State University.

Small says that her research indicates there may be hundreds of unmarked graves at Chemawa.

“In looking at the imagery, there is a great deal of disparity in how the graves are laid out; it’s my belief that there are many more graves than are accounted for in the school’s records,” Small said.

Currently working on her doctorate, Small hopes to conduct more in-depth research at Chemawa if she can secure funding. Chemawa is the oldest continuously running Indian boarding school in the country; the Bureau of Indian Education currently operates the school.

Remains of some of the children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania are being returned to their families. Carlisle, the first U.S. government Indian boarding school, opened in 1879 on an old Army base and closed in 1918. According to the Sentinel, the Army has disinterred the remains of 10 children who died at Carlisle and will be returning them to their families this month. The Army has done a number of repatriations of student remains at the request of families in recent years.

Unlike Canada, the U.S. has never acknowledged or addressed its role in the forced assimilation of generations of Indigenous children at federal and Christian denominational boarding schools.

“We need more researchers to verify data here in the U.S.; Canada is so far ahead of us,” Lajimodiere said.

Christine McCleave is chief executive officer of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which is gathering information about children who died at residential schools. (Photo courtesy of Christine McCleave)

The remains of 215 children have been found buried at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canada’s largest facility. It was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, when the government took it over as a day school. It closed in 1978.

Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation said in a news release that the discovery was an "unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented at the Kamloops Indian Residential School."

McCleave estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. public know anything about the history of Indian boarding schools in this country.

“The discovery at Kamloops school really underscores the need for these sorts of discussion here in the U.S,” McCleave said.

‘Kill the Indian’

The boarding school at Carlisle helped form Canada’s official Indian residential school policy.

After Canada passed the Indian Act in 1876, Nicholas Flood Davin, then a member of Parliament, was tasked with finding a means to educate the country’s Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act authorized the Canadian government to regulate and administer the affairs of Indigenous peoples.

Davin visited the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 and was impressed with U.S. Army Lt. Richard Pratt, the school’s founder, and his use of education as a means to force assimilation onto Native people.

Before founding Carlisle, Pratt ran a prison school for Natives at Fort Marion in Florida. The experience inspired his pedagogical style of systematically destroying Native culture, language and family connections as a means to effectively assimilate Native children into mainstream America.

Pratt’s motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” helped shape the regimented, military style that defined most boarding schools.

U.S. boarding schools were often woefully underfunded. Conditions at the schools — poor food, clothing, housing as well as close sleeping quarters — contributed to the spread of disease and sometimes death.

According to researchers, many schools failed to keep accurate records of student deaths. Parents of those who died were often notified after the child’s burial, if they were notified at all; few could afford travel expenses to pick up their children’s remains.

Additionally, school superintendents were urged to avoid incurring expenses related to returning children’s remains home to their families. Eva Guggemos, archivist at Pacific University in Oregon, shared with Indian Country Today copies of 1885 correspondence between a superintendent named Coffin of Forest Grove Indian School and acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior H.L. Muldrow regarding policies for transporting children’s remains.

Muldrow chastises Coffin for spending $50 to send the remains of a girl from the Klamath Nation home to her family and instructs Coffin and other boarding school superintendents that such expenses will not be reimbursed in the future.

In another letter, Muldrow accuses Coffin of extravagance for submitting the expense of buying velvet to line the casket of a girl who died at the school.

Coffin explained that the casket was made in the school’s woodworking shop and since the girl’s family was attending her funeral, he felt that the expense was justified.

Louellyn White, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, described her efforts in locating the burials of Carlisle students who died during the school’s Outing program. Students were lent to non-Native patrons who used them as low-cost labor such as domestic help or farmhands.

Patrons paid the school for the students’ services. Some of these Outings lasted more than a year, during which the student would live with the patron and attend public school. It’s unclear how many other schools used similar Outing programs.

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 27, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site of the former residential school. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press via AP)

White, a citizen of the Mohawk Akwesasne Nation, described the long, tedious process to Indian Country Today of locating graves of 11 Carlisle students who died during their Outing experience. After painstakingly reviewing cemetery and death records as well as newspaper articles, she was able to locate the unmarked graves of the students in the pauper’s field sections of cemeteries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The Carlisle records simply listed that they died; there was no information on where they were buried. But my goal was to locate them and go there and do ceremony and make offerings for them,” White said.

“I found that loss of their direct connection to their families so tragic,” she said.

In one case, she found three children buried in a single grave.

It’s estimated that over 10,000 children attended Carlisle at the rate of about 1,000 per year. Carlisle is one of about 200 federal Indian boarding schools that operated in the U.S.

Looking to Congress

The discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops brought a pledge from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to find more unmarked graves at residential schools.

“Sadly this is not an isolated incident,” he said. “We have to acknowledge the truth. Kids were taken from their families, returned damaged, or not returned at all.”

Meanwhile, there is what Lajimodiere describes as a resounding silence from the U.S. federal government regarding its role in the boarding school era.

Although reparations were paid in Canada, the possibility of financial reparations for boarding school survivors in the U.S. is unlikely because of legal limitations. Many are pushing, however, for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission.

McCleave cautions, however, that without truth and justice there can be no reconciliation or healing.

“In a transitional justice framework, one has to have a thorough accounting of what happened. Most importantly, we need to hear the truth from the perspective of those who were harmed,” she said.

“The United Nations Human Rights Council says we have a right to that truth,” she added.

McCleave and others are hoping that a bill introduced in Congress in 2020 by then-Rep. Deb Haaland, now Secretary of the Interior, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, will be resurrected. The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States Act died in Congress when first introduced.

The bill would establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States. Among other activities, the commission would study the impacts and ongoing effects of the Indian Boarding School Policy — a federal policy under which American Indian and Alaska Native children were forcibly removed from their family homes and placed in boarding schools. It would also make recommendations to discontinue the removal of American Indian and Alaska Native children from their families and tribal communities by state social service departments, foster care agencies, and adoption agencies.

Regardless of the occasional news story about Indian boarding schools and the ongoing refusal of governments to acknowledge either their existence or impact on Native people, the researchers and advocates soldier on.

For White, the work is spiritual. She and others report a sense of being led to do the work of researching and uncovering the truth of what happened at the boarding schools.

“We won’t forget about the children,” she said. “There are more. We have to keep looking; we have to keep looking. I have to continue on with this work.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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