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A few months ago our communities began to dig. We have known for generations what we would find, but only recently has technology advanced to the point that we could prove they were there before digging.
And so only just now have our shovels broken ground.
And found.... children.
Hundreds- thousands of children.
It started with Kamloops, where they found the bodies of 215 indigenous children in unmarked graves.
Then in Brandon there were another 104.
In Regina there were 38 and Lestock 35.
At Carlisle Indian School they found 180 of our relatives- our children who were not allowed a chance to live to be ancestors.
That is JUST six schools of the estimated 139 that operated until 1997 in Canada and at least 367 Catholic boarding schools here in the states who once stole our indigenous children from their families.
And still they dug.
The total of those found so far is over 7,300 and a modest estimate of the total number of children that never came home sits around 25,000.
70 of these schools are STILL OPEN today.
Here in the states, there are no actual records of how many children they have taken or how many have disappeared- and even then, these numbers only include Catholic denomination schools and do not even begin to touch upon the ones run by other denominations, the “orphanages”, Indian hospitals or public school and foster care systems which have been nearly if not just as abusive to indigenous youth.
My grandmother was born at a place called Wounded Knee. She was incarcerated in one of these schools in South Dakota prior to being forcefully separated from our family (again) and relocated to Seattle. There they cut off her braids, bathed her in lye and then beat her for speaking her language or practicing her own culture. She was assaulted in more ways than one and suffered from it for the rest of her life- eventually succumbing to diabetes after decades of alcoholism and years of dialysis.
She had been torn away from her people, her family and in many ways herself.
She spent much of the rest of her life in abusive relationships and the throes of trauma induced addiction because of these institutions’ attempts to assimilate her into white society. Her children continued this cycle. Out of six, only her oldest has escaped addiction and two followed her on their own journeys within five years after her passing. My father has been missing for five years now, homeless and struggling with mental health and addiction. I was contacted by a community liaison officer last winter who promised to get us in contact and never did.
(My aunt Robin who passed of liver failure after a long life of alcoholism and my grandmother Glenda Swallow-Martinson, who died at 65 after years of dialysis due to alcohol-induced diabetes)
My grandfather and his siblings were stolen from two loving parents and separated into different orphanages in North Dakota. During his time in the orphanage, my grandfather contracted polio- an illness that has greatly shaped the course of his life.
He was never adopted and stayed in the orphanage for the remainder of his childhood and later moved to Seattle, where he has spent his life helping everyone he meets in their own pursuits of healing and reconciliation with their own trauma.
(My uncle John on the left, who died of a heroin overdose after relapsing from a two year bout of being clean, on the right is my father- who has been missing for over five years now)
I myself am a survivor of abuse at the hands of the Nuns at Saint Francis Catholic School- where they once saw it fit to fight the Indian within the child with a ruler. At SeaTac Christian Academy, an administrator regularly had me sent to his office to show me the paddle that hung above his desk with holes drilled in it so that it could be swung faster. He would remind me of how many other Indian children had met this paddle.
That only includes my time in religious institutions.
Public school was a whole other nightmare.
In second grade, child protective services was sent to my school where I was taken to the principals office to speak with a blonde woman who repeatedly made attempts to get me to incriminate my father. She told me that she could “take me to a better place”.
By third grade I’d been placed in an all indigenous “anger management” group, which consisted of regularly being pulled out of class and missing out on an education to discuss my “anger”.
Anger that mostly stemmed from treatment by other students and the fact that the curriculum in my school still included lessons that taught about uncivilized, “savage” tribes who had stood in the way of western expansion. Curriculum that called the massacre of over 350 of my people at Wounded Knee a “battle” and had white children making construction paper war bonnets around Thanksgiving.
I was punished for refusing to pledge allegiance to a flag that represents genocide and slavery to so many people in a country that claims to have “freedom of speech”.
In middle school, I competed in wrestling and before one meet I was handed a pair of scissors in the locker room and told to either cut my hair or forfeit.
I had been told that I could wear a hairnet, but this referee insisted that was not the case, no matter how I pleaded with him.
In high school I was regularly profiled and searched. I was given detention many times purely because the principal felt that there was no way I wasn’t on drugs.
Little did he know that I was incredibly ill and left class regularly to puke blood in the bathroom, not to get intoxicated.
I share my experience in order to show that this is not an issue that will disappear with the boarding and residential schools. This is an issue that exists within the fundamental ideals of Manifest Destiny that this country and its educational system were built on.
This is not only the experience of myself and my family- but that of thousands of indigenous families who have faced many of these same systemic issues in colonial school systems for well over a hundred years and who have faced much more beyond them.
We have all been trying to tell people about this mistreatment of our children for generations, only to be ignored and treated like we’re exaggerating or “re-hashing history”. We have fought tirelessly for justice for our ancestors, our grandparents, parents and ourselves.
We have fought to ensure that our own children and grandchildren do not face these same injustices.
But here we are, still here.
And there’s no hiding their sins now.
We see a lot of performative things as indigenous people. Land acknowledgements, the changing of names of holidays that celebrate genocidal maniacs and now a whole month dedicated to our heritage! These things are wonderful, but serve little purpose in regards to inciting actual change in our daily lives.
This Native American Heritage Month, don’t be a performative- educate yourself on the history of atrocity that our tribal people have faced at the hands of those who sought a different life on our lands and remember that you have benefitted from it.
Written By: Jack DeVore