By Sarah Rose Harper
In case you somehow missed the tragic story about the discovery of 215 First Nations children who passed away at the hands of a Canadian “school,” it’s time to wake up. This is our reality. You are shocked; you are heart broken. I wish we could be. This was not shocking — this was known.
We grow up with, and without, parents who lived, and did not live, through this. This isn’t history. The last school closed in 1996. I can already feel your shock. “Certainly not,” you say. “Someone should have done something about this.”
To do something now, please ask your congressional reps to pass the bill that will form a U.S. Truth and Healing Commission.
Chase Iron Eyes with real talk about the 215.
Let me ask you something; and fair warning — I have lots of questions. Did you say that same thing when you learned about the Tulsa Massacre for the first time?
What do you even think about when you march against racism, decry police violence, or stand against pipelines? I promise you, we think about this during those times. This is our life, and I have survived against all odds to write this for you.
“Colonialism” is a sanitized, comfortable word academics and white folx like to throw around. Colonization is violent. People are murdered; children are murdered. Families are ripped apart by horror and trauma and violence. Residential schools are just one chapter in this book of violent genocide — waged by the colonial powers on Turtle Island against the Original People.
I can explain it to you. I can stand here like an orphan looking over the body of a murdered parent, and explain to you why and how all of this happened. But should I have to?
Shouldn’t you already know this part of your country’s history?
How do you begin to ask yourself why this chapter is missing from your working knowledge of Canadian and American history? Do you think that’s an accident? You’ve noticed; I have lots of questions, just like that orphan. Yet, I will still stand here covered in blood, shocked by the acute tragedy, and calmly explain to you how all of this came to be because you are curious.
And because you didn’t bother to educate yourself on our reality in the first place. “Go straight to the source,” you think, without a single thought to what we endure to simply exist.
Firstly, know these were not “schools.” These camps were set up by Canadian and American churches. We did not choose to send our children to these horrors. Children and babies were stolen from their families and forced into these schools. The main purpose was to separate these little souls from their language and culture. And because the academics and colonized will crave some proof of harm, I offer this detail: The legal definition of genocide, of which one aspect is cultural genocide, involves the eradication and destruction of cultural artifacts, such as books, artworks, and structures, as well as the suppression of cultural activities that do not conform to the destroyer's notion of what is appropriate.)
The intention of these child camps was embodied in the famous (to us) statements, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” and “Kill the Indian in the Child.” At these “residential schools,” Indigenous children were not allowed to speak their languages, practice any part of their culture, or even use their real names. These “boarding schools” gave our children new English names and forced them to cut their hair short. If our babies did not assimilate, they died. Often, they died anyway. To even attempt survival, our children had to abandon their tribal, cultural, family, and clan identities to embrace the colonizers’ ways. This was all done in the name of taming the savages, curing the burden to society, and providing guidance to the ignorant Indians.
Hopefully Indigenous folx haven’t read this far, but if you have, you will want to skip this section. I have to allude to the unimaginable suffering, to call to account those people who self-identify as allies but have somehow not educated themselves on our history or bothered to examine what that sanitized term, “colonization,” actually means.
Let’s start off easy; shall we? These camps were meant to teach practical skills, which, in essence, was simply unpaid, child labor. Boys may have learned farming or carpentry. Girls learned how to sew, clean, wash laundry, and cook. All of this time spent working meant less time spent on academic learning; students who graduated at 18 could be expected to complete grade level 5.
TW: Extreme Violence
If this is not yet horrifying enough for you, the majority of our children were beaten, shackled to their beds, and needles were used to pierce their tongues, electric shocks given as punishment to their tiny bodies. Indigenous children were sexually assaulted by the nuns and priests — the adults responsible for “administering” the school. Residential schools were places of institutionalized pedophilia. As exemplified by the recent tragic discovery in Canada, countless Native children died — too many to warrant individual burials. And what do you think life was like for those who survived? What kind of parents and community members do you think they are? Remember this is living history.
“When I was six years old, I saw a little girl killed right in front of me by a nun, Sister Pierre, whose real name was Ethel Lynn. The girl she killed was Elaine Dick, who was five years old. The nun kicked her hard in the side of the neck and I heard this terrible snap. She fell to the floor and didn’t move. She died right in front of us. Then the nun told us to step over her body and go to class. That was 1966.”
Steven H., St. Paul’s Catholic Day School, North Vancouver
I know all of this is incredibly brutal, but I promise you, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface for you. The horrors these places brought to our children and our communities didn’t happen centuries ago, though they have been happening for centuries.
Our parents and their siblings endured this abuse. They were the ones who survived. They survived so that we could survive and be here today, to educate you on your nation’s history of violence.
Don’t make orphans stand here covered in the blood of our parents and explain to you how this all came to be without doing something about it. Don’t, for one second, think this is over. Remember, this was one chapter in the book. The story continues today in the form of the Department of Social, Family and Child Services. Our children are still being taken away from us, stripped of their identity, their culture and all humanity — and our babies do not always survive this process.
So yes, this latest news means we are acutely hurting. And we are angry. But we will carry on. We are mourning, and asking Creator to watch over those 215 souls. We are trying to take the time to heal the best way we can.
So please stop asking us to explain to you how we got here. This is your history. Now do something about it.
Tell your reps: It’s time to form an official U.S. Truth and Healing Commission. Empower it to bring understanding of the scope of this violent history to the national consciousness. Only once we understand the awful truth together can we even begin to take any step toward healing.
What else can non-Indigenous people do?
Donate to those accounts who actively educate, because it’s a lot of emotional labor.
- Learn your history and read these books:
Advocate to include this information within the the public schooling curriculum so no Native person has to be asked to explain this to anyone again: