A group portrait of Indigenous people lying on the grass outside the Cushman Indian School on the Puyallup Indian Reservation near Tacoma in June 1918. (Tacoma Public Library, Marvin D. Boland Collection)
Findings of anonymous graves in former so-called “residential schools” for Indigenous children in British Columbia and other parts of Canada have traumatized many families, shaken the government of that country and called into question long-standing reports. decades on missing and abused children.
And there are probably equally devastating parallels to the history of the south side of the Canada-US border.
In late May, the Kamloops Indian Band in British Columbia announced that they had discovered the anonymous graves of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 to 1978.
It is a horrific discovery which is not surprising to some, but which seems to force an account between the indigenous peoples and everyone in this country. Other anonymous graves have been discovered in Canada, notably earlier this week on Penelakut Island in the Gulf Islands, not far from the American San Juan Islands.
Residential schools in Canada were funded by the government and operated by religious organizations, including the Catholic Church. Many believe the schools were part of a systematic effort to extinguish Indigenous culture – “kill the Indian and save the man” is the old saying. Indigenous children would be separated from their families, languages, spiritual practices and communities. Schools were also places where physical and sexual abuse clearly occurred and where countless Indigenous children eventually disappeared.
The Kamloops discovery and subsequent revelations are taken seriously by most Canadians. The Canadian government has set up a hotline for survivors and anyone else affected by the news, and media coverage has been intense. Canada Day – the nation’s founding day on July 1 – was dark this year. The country seems to have lost the taste for the holidays, and there seems to be some accountability to Canada.
A similar school system existed in the United States, notably in Washington and Oregon. Home Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Indigenous person to hold the post, announced the “Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative” in late June, which is described in a press release as a “comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal residential schools. school policies.
“Secretary Haaland directs the ministry to prepare a report detailing available historical documents, with emphasis on potential cemeteries or burial sites, regarding the federal internship program for future work at the site.” , continues the press release. “This work will take place under the supervision of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. “
With more discoveries in Canada and with Secretary Haaland’s announcement, the feeling among many is that the United States may be heading for a similar calculation north of the border.
Michael Finley is a former tribal president and historian for the Colville tribes. He told KIRO Radio that the stories of abused and missing children – and the true intention of government and church-run schools for indigenous children – are common knowledge in families and tribal communities.
“This is a very traumatic time in our history that is not well known to the general public, but it should be,” Finley said. “But it’s only finds like that [in Kamloops and elsewhere in Canada] where people are finally starting to pay attention to what we’ve always said. Our voices have been drowned out by many different efforts, but this is a very systematic and very deliberate attempt to wipe us off the map. “
Like many Aboriginal people, Finley speaks from his personal knowledge. Her father attended the Pascal Sherman Indian School in Omak and was sexually assaulted there by a priest, suffered physical violence and witnessed violence against other students.
One of Finley’s great aunts told him the story of sending her sister to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
“She spoke about her older sister who was sent to Carlisle, and they didn’t find out for weeks that she was dead,” Finley said. “And the only response they got when they said she was dead in Carlisle was, ‘Oh, she took a shower. She put her head out the window to talk to someone from her dorm. , and it was the dead of winter and she got pneumonia and died.
“And there was no more answer than that,” said Finley, describing what sounds like an all-too-common indifference to the health and safety of Indigenous children, and a callous disregard for their families.
Michael Finley says Aboriginal family stories like this are the rule, not the exception.
“There are a lot of stories like this that are painful, and they run through our generations today, through their historical trauma, that a lot of people don’t want to recognize or that they don’t want to talk about,” Finley said. “But it’s very real, and I guarantee you if that happened in another scenario, there would be headlines all over the place.” But for some reason, because it happened to the natives, no one wants to give the same level of credibility as they would otherwise. “
Finley is clearly traumatized by the impact of the violence inflicted on his family members, but he’s also committed to telling the stories as a way to challenge the intent of that violence.
“I hate to say it that way, but it’s true, and we are the survivors of this historic trauma,” Finley said. “But we’re here to tell stories, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Shelly Boyd is Finley’s cousin and also lives on the Colville Reservation, where she coordinates a legal effort related to a long struggle for traditional lands in Canada. She heard stories from her mother about schools and observed throughout her adulthood how the community as a whole minimized or denied the reality of the violence and other abuse that the “Kamloops 215” brought to light. foreground.
“The message I think we got, generationally, was that it didn’t happen or that you were exaggerating,” Boyd said.
The Colville Reservation in north-central Washington is separated from other neighboring indigenous groups by the international border, but despite the border, people like Michael Finley and Shelly Boyd remain geographically – and culturally – close to those who frequented Kamloops School.
“As the Sinixt people, our connection to Kamloops is that it’s the land right next to our land in Canada,” Boyd said. “And I 100% believe that some of our people are part of these anonymous graves.”
“And it’s impossible to know who they are,” Boyd said.
A spokesperson for the Home Office told KIRO radio on Tuesday that there were no details to share on activities or a timeline for Secretary Haaland’s federal residential school initiative yet. In Evergreen State, there are records to be combed through – in institutions such as the National Archives at Sand Point; there are families to talk to to collect personal stories of missing children; and there may even be archaeological fieldwork like what is happening in Canada.
Craig Bill is Executive Director of the Governor’s Commission on Indian Affairs under Governor Jay Inslee.
He shared with KIRO Radio a list of 13 Federal Indian Residential Schools in Washington. The older ones in western Washington were Tulalip near Marysville and Cushman near Tacoma, although children from Washington were also sent to Chemawa School in Oregon. There were also a number of day schools on or near reserves which may or may not be subject to the same type of control as boarding schools.
Much more detail on Indian schools in Washington is contained in a report prepared by former MOHAI librarian and leading Evergreen State school building historian Carolyn Marr.
Craig Bill says his office will likely be closely associated with the Home Office and the Washington tribes as the initiative and specific measures take shape.
Bill has his own family stories about the impact and trauma of schools here. He stressed how essential it is that in the effort to quantify and investigate what happened in Washington, families and communities are not further traumatized.
“There are still families there, and there is still trauma, and there is an existing impact” of the violence, missing children and the discovery of anonymous graves, said Bill. “To review it and have this discussion, you always open these wounds.”
“And so I think you absolutely have to be very sensitive to that,” Bill said.
A detailed report on the Kamloops discovery is due Thursday. Michael Finley and Craig Bill are convinced that anonymous graves will also be found in Washington. It is more difficult to say if the numbers are of the same magnitude as in Canada and will likely only be revealed through careful study.
In the meantime, what can the people of Evergreen State do with the revelations from Canada and the horrific tales of trauma – the violence itself, plus the generational effects – right here in Washington, from people like Michael? Finley, Shelly Boyd and Craig Bill?
Finley asks people to listen and hear the stories, then try to understand.
“Ask them to put themselves in our shoes,” Finley said, addressing Washingtonians who may not have a personal connection to Indigenous families or communities.
“You are sitting there living the same life that your people have been living for thousands of years, and this new group of people is coming in saying, ‘we don’t like the way you live and we are going to take your children.’ , Finley said.
“We’re going to move them 100, 200, 300 miles, and they can’t speak your guys’ language anymore,” he continued. “We’re going to cut their hair, which is part of our culture. They cannot practice what they have done before. We’re going to make you do things the way we want you to do them.
“Imagine today if that happened in America,” Finley said, “where we had someone come over and do this to their kids and ask them if they would still be okay with that. “
“They won’t be,” Finley said.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, find out more about him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.