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Discovery Of Remains At Residential Schools Prompts Calls For Indigenous Reparations


Remains of more than 300 children have been found at Indigenous boarding school sites in Canada. Hundreds of schools like these also existed in the U.S. for a century, but much of the country has not acknowledged it. Noelle Evans shares what reparations could look like.

NOELLE E C EVANS, BYLINE: Doug George-Kanentiio is a survivor of a boarding school in Ontario. At school, he says students were assigned numbers, beaten for speaking their Native language and sexually abused.

DOUG GEORGE-KANENTIIO: The intent was to extinguish us as Aboriginal people and destroy whatever sense of self-worth we had can.

EVANS: Kanentiio is a citizen of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which spans the U.S.-Canada border along New York state. While Kanentiio is on the Canadian side, Agnes Williams, a Haudenosaunee elder, is on the Cattaraugus territory.

AGNES WILLIAMS: Nobody escapes from the historical drama of the boarding schools.

EVANS: Many students never returned to their families. Some were placed in foster care. Others went missing. The reverberations are still felt today. But what can be done now?

DAVID SIMMONS: Healing doesn't happen very easily, if at all, when you're hiding behind a wall of secrecy.

EVANS: That's David Simmons with the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Last year, the organization endorsed a bill that would create a federal truth and healing commission. It would undo that secrecy by investigating and documenting the effects of the boarding school policy. Simmons says it would be a good start, but...

SIMMONS: But I don't think just by forming the commission and having it do its reporting is going to be sufficient.

EVANS: A similar commission was established in Maine in 2012. It found that Native children in the state were five times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-Natives - decades after the boarding school era. It's a similar trend around the country. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 70% of Cherokee children in the Midwest had been placed in non-Native foster homes, which can lead to a loss of identity. Of 1,700 cases, 40% were due to parental opioid abuse. Here's Simmons.

SIMMONS: People use those destructive behaviors and those drugs as a way to cope with that pain from the trauma that they've experienced.

EVANS: He says, if there's going to be restitution, the intergenerational trauma must be addressed. When children were taken from their families, they didn't learn how to be parents themselves. And so that psychological injury was passed down. Simmons says specialized mental health care and parenting resources within Native communities could help, but right now, there are not enough. Williams says part of this collective trauma is tied to language. When students were brutalized for speaking their Native tongue, she says it caused a spiritual wound.

WILLIAMS: These languages in our cultures develop over thousands of years, and it's very meaningful for people's sense of belonging and mental health.

EVANS: She says it's severed their relationship with the natural world and their heritage within it, which is central to their connection with their creator. To prevent repeating this history, Williams wants people to behave in accordance with a United Nations declaration that affirms the rights of Indigenous people. For Kanentiio, justice would take more than all of that.

GEORGE-KANENTIIO: Something deep and wonderful has been lost, and that's the terror of this sin.

EVANS: He wants the remains of children who never returned from the boarding schools to be found so that their trapped spirits can be ceremonially released into the spirit world. For NPR News, I'm Noelle Evans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noelle E. C. Evans

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