There Are Many Unmarked Graves of Indigenous Kids at US Boarding Schools Too

There were at least 367 boarding schools in the U.S. that were run similarly and often as brutally as Canada's residential school system.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 21, 2021, 3:05pm
Native American students from Omaha tribe at Carlisle school.
Native American girls from the Omaha tribe at Carlisle School, Pennsylvania. | Location: Carlisle School, Pennsylvania. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Shortly after a First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, confirmed it found the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried under a former residential school, news of more sites just like it started to surface across the country—and in the United States.

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated residential schools and their ongoing legacy, about 4,100 children died in Canada alone, and experts think the figure is actually closer to 15,000. 

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Now, Indigenous folks are expecting a similar reckoning to unfold in the U.S., which operated its own school system that was similar and often just as brutal as Canada’s.

“It’s only a matter of time…We’re days, hours, or weeks away from something like that happening here in the U.S.,” said Ricky White, an Anishinaabe man from Naotkamegwanning First Nation in northern Ontario. White attended residential day school in Canada in the 1980s and currently lives in Fargo, North Dakota. 

“Every community says that only half of the kids that went away to boarding schools came back…Of those kids who were killed, tortured, slaved, there’s a good guess there were many killed—and how do you hide that?” White said. “Well, we’re finding that out in Kamloops right now.”

There were at least 367 boarding schools across the U.S., run by the government and churches, operating from the 1860s to the late 1970s. Like in Canada, the point was to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people, who were subjected to sweeping sexual and physical abuses and harsh punishments for speaking their languages and expressing their identities. 

In both countries, architects of the residential and boarding school systems notoriously sought to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

“The U.S. Indian boarding school era was an integral part of a centuries-long systematic, genocidal campaign by the United States government to erase Native peoples, cultures, and civilizations,” the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) said in a statement earlier this month following the news of the gravesites in Canada.. 

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The number of children who were killed or went missing during the U.S. boarding school era is unknown. 

“The U.S. has never acknowledged its assimilative boarding school policies and refused to provide an accounting of the children that went missing and deaths that occurred at Indian boarding schools in this country,” NABS said. 

According to White’s colleague James Postema, an English professor with Concordia College-Moorhead, Minnesota, there are already local calls to investigate sites in North Dakota and Michigan. 

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army announced it is planning to return the remains of 10 Indigenous children who died more than 100 years ago while attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School, open from 1879 to 1918, to their tribal nations. 

“It was the same situation in the U.S. in terms of the boarding school experiment, era, harms, and impacts, and the unmarked graves,” said Christine McCleave, head of NABS and an enrolled citizen of Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation.

McCleave’s grandfather and great-grandfather attended boarding schools—her great-grandfather attended Carlisle. It’s the fourth time the army is returning some of the loved ones to their home communities. McCleave said there were a little more than 200 children buried there, and 14 graves are marked with an “unknown” sign. 

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Research across the U.S. and Canada exposes how residential and boarding school systems have led to the conditions facing Indigenous folks today, including over-representation in prisons, systemic racism in health care, and how residential school systems didn’t really end—they just became foster care.

In Minnesota, nearly a quarter of all kids in care are Indigenous, but make up less than 2 percent of the total child population, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. “I always say we are the orphans and descendants of all the things that were done to us,” White said. “The conditions we’re living with today are all the remnants of what happened to us through colonial processes, policies, and procedures.”

White said he still feels “no good” walking around college campuses, as if he doesn’t belong, or he feels fear when a police officer walks by or pulls him over. 

“All this stuff can be related back to the 215 children found in Kamloops—and of course many more.”

In the fall, then House Representative Deb Haaland (who is now Interior Secretary in President Joe Biden’s cabinet) introduced the Truth and Healing Commission on the Indian Boarding School Policy Act, which would have launched an U.S. version of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The bill failed that session, so NABS is now working with officials to reintroduce it in the summer. 

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The point of truth commissions is “to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record,” wrote Bonny Ibhawoh, a McMaster University history professor. 

McCleave said a truth commission would also allow for a full examination into federal policies that removed children from their homes and assimilated them, amounting to genocide. Ideally, the commission would also force the government to hand over boarding school records, so that groups like NABS can access and compile more information, including students’ identities and the number of students who were forced to attend the schools or who died or went missing. 

In Canada, testimony from 6,000 residential school survivors and relatives cemented Canada’s ugly history in the TRC’s final reports, and informed 94 calls to action, such as safeguarding the opportunity for Indigenous people to learn their languages and to hire more Indigenous people in health care. Only eight calls have been fully implemented since the findings were first published more than five years ago. 

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“It’s frustrating too. It’s like, Canada had the commission and still the government isn't taking responsibility. Here in the U.S. we’re further behind,” McCleave said, adding that she was disappointed to learn that Canada had previously denied requests to fund searches for residential school burial sites, and instead, communities have had to pursue investigations themselves. 

White said he doesn’t think truth commissions at local or federal levels will take place in the U.S. anytime soon. You only need to look to the January 6 Capitol Hill riot to understand why, he said. 

“In America, we have zero policies, really, that are anywhere close to what Canada has done,” he said. “The political divide here isn’t helping anything. So much divide in politics, so the whole arena right now is looking pretty bleak.”

In the meantime, White and Postema, as well as groups like NABS that pursue grassroots investigation and advocacy campaigns, are trying to document the ongoing legacy of U.S. boarding schools themselves. 

“We want to make sure this is all known knowledge,” White said. 

White and Postema are part of a project that aims to develop community-based reparations for Native Americans struggling with trauma and intergenerational trauma as a result of boarding school. They could include training for social workers that informs them of colonial contexts, new curricula that expose students in grade school to Indigenous and colonial histories, and more support for Indigenous students. 

A 12-person, all-Indigenous committee made up of professionals across sectors will work alongside Native American leaders in and around Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, as well as White, Postema, and others, to develop strategies that are part of a larger “Just Futures” grant program that seeks reparations to “document, address, and seek redress for wrongs done in the past that were motivated by racism.”

“Our project is trying to work to heal families that have been affected by boarding schools, which includes pretty much every family in town here,” Postema said. 

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