Well-Known Secret Cemeteries: (Re) Discovering the Horrors of Assimilation for Indigenous Peoples


May 27, 2021, a mass grave containing around 215 bodies was discovered in British Columbia — bodies? No, the corpses of little boys and girls. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was part of a systematic educational effort for Indigenous youth in Canada, with comparable projects in the United States, the purpose and intent of which are hotly debated today.

Some used to say that the schools were meant to civilize Indian children. It was assumed that Indian children were savages who had to be separated from their parents and learned to dress and behave while being brainwashed by Christianity. However, some of my colleagues and mentors accuse these schools of wanting to erase us. The program, in Canada, ran from 1831 to 1996.

Since the discovery, the former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada and the United States have been under review. On June 24, 2021, at least 600 anonymous graves were discovered in the former Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan. On July 15, 2021, it was reported that nine children were returned to their country of origin after spending over a century at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, at Carlisle Cemetery.

My first reaction to all of this was nonchalant. Not because I don’t care, but because I thought it was old news. Just as Columbus “discovered” a land that does not need to be discovered, these cemeteries are a well-known secret. I had always assumed that everyone understood that settlement projects saw Indigenous individuals as consumables. Just another day in an ongoing genocide. But, for many people, it was a shock and a shameful reminder that indigenous peoples have only recently been considered humans.

Cartoon from Without reservations by Ricardo Caté. Reproduced with permission.

I started to really take an interest in the horrors of assimilation practices in my twenties when I first read Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archeology and the Battle for Native American Identity by David Hurst Thomas. This book is not about residential schools, but through the story of an argument over a 9,000-year-old skeleton, it illustrates how Aboriginal life does not seem to deserve respect, even after we return to earth.

Other evidence abounds: between 1846 and 1873, an Amerindian genocide was perpetrated in California in the name of democracy, as recounted in the book by Brendan C. Lindsay Status of murder. During the Wounded Knee massacre, the US military murdered approximately 250 to 300 Lakota. Too many of us have been murdered, accidentally killed, buried, dug up, placed in museums, used in warfare, used as subjects for experimentation, subjected to substandard health care, and the list goes on.

How not to draw the same conclusion as I: that for the dominant political decision-makers of the last 150 years, the lives of the Aboriginals do not matter?

Maybe I was rare, however, as I knew those who saw Indigenous life as expendable were wrong. My first sustained intersection with the topic of residential school survivors came from reading surrounded him, a novel by D’Arcy McNickle. I supported Mike’s character as he struggled to “remember” his roots and protested sincerely by refusing to cut his hair.

This morning I watched my three year old son play and snuggle up to his mom. He learns Dził Biyiin, or mountain songs, in Diné Bizaad (Navajo language). Her hair is starting to be long. He will never feel any shame within his family about his choices and his pursuit of the corn pollen path. I will soon teach him Shash Biyiin, bear songs, so that he can protect himself from spiritual attacks. In this world we live in, he will need it.

Today it is really hard to imagine how these children, buried long ago but never forgotten, are in fact old enough to be my great-grandparents. Did they pray that children like us would speak for them? Did they ask that one day the songs, prayers, resistance and smiles return? Our children are the answers to the prayers of our ancestors when they were stolen. I wonder if these little ones had a moment to recognize their traditional lands and directions as they were kidnapped. I wonder if they knew they would never see their homeland again.

It is assumed that when an elder dies with great knowledge, that knowledge is lost forever. From an alternative perspective, this is not always the case. There are a number of accounts in the history of Navajo origin which tell of underestimated individuals being guided towards the understanding and application of ceremonial knowledge by the Holy People. The Creator gives us healers and leaders when needed. Many families still pray for the future to bring answers and solutions, leaders and healers, in the form of our children. We pray that the Holy People will restore what has been lost. I imagine these kids did the same.

Today the world can witness everything that was once a well-known secret. Dehumanized “suspects” can be seen dying with one knee on their neck. But we can also choose to seek peace and humanize our loved ones. Empathy is the key to our collective healing. When we forget that someone is human, we forget that they deserve to live and breathe. Then we start to create caricatures of them and they become mascots or targets. But they are human. They are the children of the Creator. This sentiment was recently and beautifully sung by Thee Sacred Souls in their song “Give Us Justice”:

it could have been me

Lying on concrete

There’s a knee against my neck

Pleading for my breath

You can see that our world is in need of healing. You can stream it right now. It is your choice to turn away. It is your choice to do something.

Featured Image By Annie Spratt via Unsplash

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