In the 1800s, Native American Boarding schools were opening in America and Canada to teach the Indigenous peoples English and assimilate them to American/Canadian society. Native American’s were seen as savages and it was “assumed that it was necessary to “civilize” Indian people, make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems” (nativepartnership.org), despite them having complex cultures, belief systems and living completely independently on their reservations.
The first of these schools was built in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation, as the years passed however, it was felt that still being on the reservation was too close to their community and so the students couldn’t properly ‘assimilate’ to American culture. On this subject, Pratt wrote: “‘I do not believe that amongst his people an Indian can be made to feel all the advantages of a civilized life nor the manhood of supporting himself and of standing out alone and battling for life as an American citizen,’ …Assimilation, he argued, required ‘removal’ and ‘personal isolation’” (uoregon.edu).
These schools were not teaching how to understand the ‘American’ way of life, their beliefs, and customs; they were attempting to completely eradicate the Native American history and culture. Richard Henry Pratt was prolific in the establishment and development of these schools, and his motto was “Kill the Indian, save the man”. Only English was spoken, new clothes were provided, boy’s long hair was cut short to prevent their traditional braids being worn, and anything relating to their homes and tribes was removed. Children were also given new non-Indigenous names. Converting to Christianity was also deemed a necessary part of the process. Many lost their fluency in their native tongue after years in boarding school. Contact with their families and communities was limited, even if the school was on or near their reservation.
Illness, disease and malnourishment were substantial problems in these schools due to crowded conditions and limited medical supplies. Measles, tuberculosis and influenza were some of the worst, “Survivors described classmates becoming increasingly listless with TB until they were quietly removed by authorities” (nationalpost.com). Accidents caused by unsafe conditions were another big killer. There were limited health and safety or fire regulations which often resulted in multiple casualties. Furthermore, “There are stories of the children themselves having to dig the graves for other children” (ctvnews.ca).
Chief Harvey McLeod attended Kamloops Indian Residential School as a child, and has said “I just remember that they were here one day and they were gone the next” (Nationalpost.com). Once a child had died, they typically weren’t discussed again “We just never seen [sic] them again and nobody ever talked about them” (ctvnews.ca).
Education became mandatory for Native American children in 1893 from the age of six, and their parents could be jailed for non-compliance. Police would go onto reservations and seize children if they weren’t presented. Once the child had been enrolled in the school system, their parent’s lost any control over decision making and holiday requests would often be denied. Many children ran away from the schools “At Chemawa, for example, there were 46 “desertions” recorded in 1921, followed by 70 in 1922.” (Washington.edu), but those who were caught received severe punishments as examples to deter future attempts. Many children who weren’t caught, died in their escape attempts. In 1937, four boys left their school on New Year’s Day to return home to their reservation seven miles away. It was over 24 hours before the school sent out a search party and all four boys were found frozen less than a mile away from their homes.
There is a marked cemetery at Chemawa containing 189 children who died at the school, these are the ones whose remains were not returned home to their families. In the first six years of operation from 1884, the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School experienced a more than 40% death rate among the students and, in the 1940s, deaths in these boarding schools could be around five times higher than other Canadian children. Not only were children removed from their families at a young age and their culture/language stripped from them, they were at high risk of never leaving the school and their families never knowing why. It wasn’t until 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed that parents legally could refuse to send their children to these schools. The Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan was the last school to close in 1996 and there are numerous survivors of these schools still alive today.
In 2012, an inquest was launched by the coroner’s office into the unrecorded deaths and Chief Coroner Andrew McCallum said “It’s staggering to think that families would not have known what happened to a child that was sent off to the residential schools.” (nationalpost.com).
In May, 2021, a penetrating radar survey was conducted at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada and uncovered the unmarked graves of 215 children. Officially, the school only recorded 51 deaths from when it opened in 1893. This is not the first discovery of this kind; 72 unmarked graves were discovered by archaeology students at the Battleford Industrial School and Dunbow Residential School had 34 children’s coffins uncovered by heavy rains.
Identifying the remains will be difficult as the records kept were incomplete at best, sometimes only recording one name and not even a gender. The families of these children might never know what happened and were rarely given the opportunity to bury their dead as “It is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances … an expenditure which the Department does not feel warranted in authorizing” (nationalpost.com) said the Department of Indian Affairs.
In light of the Kamloops Indian Residential School discovery, there have been calls for all former boarding school grounds to be searched as many believe there are still unmarked graves to be found.