The Cowesses First Nation last week discovered a burial site of at least 751 people— mainly children — at the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. That was only weeks after the remains of 215 missing children were discovered near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Many people have been shocked by these discoveries. I wasn’t. Like so many others in tribal communities across North America, I’d heard these stories before.
One of those stories involved my great grandfather, who was an orphan and spent his entire younger life at a similar school — the Regina Indian Industrial School in Saskatchewan, where another burial site of missing children was found in 2012. I don’t know all the details about my great grandfather’s experience, but I do know that he ran away several times and was tracked down by the national Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Punishments for running away were severe, including whipping and solitary confinement.
I head an organization that advocates for greater philanthropic commitment to Native American communities. In that role, I’m frequently asked what intergenerational trauma means for Indigenous people. For many years, I felt it wasn’t appropriate for me to express much of an opinion on the matter because I grew up in a safe and supportive family in Seattle. I’ve come to feel differently as I’ve learned more about my great grandfather’s story. I never knew him, but the legacy of trauma he left my family remains very real.
At a moment when we are confronting structural racism and intergenerational trauma in America, many in philanthropy are trying to better understand why so many of us call for healing-centered approaches to our work. They could start the process of understanding by learning the horrific history of these boarding schools, which were part of government-sanctioned efforts in the United States and Canada to extinguish our culture. These schools left long-term emotional and physical scars on generations of Indigenous families — the very definition of generational trauma.
In the late 19th century, the United States and Canada began building hundreds of residential boarding schools across the continent. Their primary purpose was not to educate but to assimilate. The first of these institutions in the United States was created by Army General Henry Pratt, who was inspired by an education program he developed at a prison. “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Pratt said in a speech in 1892. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
The schools’ curriculums were indeed designed to destroy who the children were as Indigenous people. The children were often forcibly removed from their families by armed police. Once at school, it was policy to cut their braids or shave their heads and beat them for speaking their language or taking part in any cultural practice. What education they did receive was focused on trade crafts useful to Western white business interests. Sexual and physical abuse was common, and school staff, administrators, and police operated with impunity. Even by the 1960s, many of the schools reported that they had a “major emphasis on discipline and punishment,” according to a congressional report.
The remains uncovered at Kamloops and Marieval are clear evidence of this shameful past. Relatives of the victims finally got some answers to the murky, destructive, and painful history of the boarding-school system. But the trauma doesn’t end with such discoveries. Those families will always be haunted not just by the lost lives of their relatives but the lost stories — the still hidden truths, lessons, and possibility for healing.
I, too, am haunted regularly about everything I don’t know about my great grandfather’s life at the Regina Indian Industrial School. He never wanted to return to his community. He grew up speaking Nakoda but was punished for it at the school and couldn’t pass it down. My family has lost so much of our cultural heritage, including our language and connections to his tribal community due to the intergenerational trauma imposed by these schools.
Though ours is a story of a Canadian system, our relatives in the United States suffered very similarly at the hands of American boarding schools. Last week U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new federal effort to search for the remains of lost children from boarding schools in the United States.
Philanthropy can play an important role in healing the communities that carry the legacy of these schools. First, don’t look away from this painful history. Teach yourself all you can about the boarding schools. And be sure to include our story as you and your colleagues educate yourselves about the terrible history of police violence against Black and brown people in the United States.
Second, invest in culture-centered programming such as the Remembering the Children memorial for the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in South Dakota and many similar efforts across the country. Because these schools were designed to dismantle our culture, we know that reclaiming that culture is the path to healing. It’s also important to invest in programs directly focused on addressing the trauma experienced by former students of these schools and their families. A great resource is the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which provides information about local and national programs, movements, and support services.
Finally, to better understand where philanthropic dollars are being invested and where they are needed, check out Investing in Native Communities — a project developed by my organization, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and Candid.
So many of our children were lost to this system over generations. I’m grateful my great grandfather wasn’t one of them, but he lost a lot of himself and his community as a survivor. It’s time to confront this history, reconcile with it, and invest in healing our people.