Little Thunders— Prepare yourself
- Published: June 20, 2021
Two-hundred-and-fifteen children’s bodies were recently found in a mass grave at an Indian boarding school site. When I heard the news, I fell to my knees, sobbing. Beautiful Indigenous children who were discarded, hidden and never to be heard from again. Until now.
For those readers who are not Native, and who do not have an understanding of the issue, I’ll give some context. From the late 1800s until 1996, the U.S. government and Canada each decided that Indigenous people were “savages” and “heathens,” and needed their culture brutally stripped from them. The settler colonial administrators established government-funded boarding “schools,” and forced families to give up their babies to these institutions of cultural removal.
Hundreds of these so-called schools were built — more than 350 in the U.S. and 130 or so in Canada. Children were gathered from nearly 600 Tribal Nations. Communities who refused to send their children suffered from the government withholding food, clothing and annuities owed by treaties. Sometimes, trucks would drive into reservations and grab children in the night or early mornings, boogie-man style, while sobbing family members looked on, helpless. The stories and the memories from Native communities are that of nightmares. Living nightmares.
I urge you to prepare yourself for more stories just like these.
The 215 children who were put in an unmarked mass grave were only found because of expensive ground-penetrating radar, which is a new technology originally designed for geology and geophysics. Nearly all of the 480 or so boarding/residential schools had a cemetery associated with them, according to the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. And, what is more striking, is that we’ve been hearing personal heart-wrenching stories of murder and torture from witnesses and survivors for years and years.
Survivors. That is what we call those who lived through this not-too-far-away era of “kill the Indian” legislation that made all of this possible. I listened to Murray Sinclair (Anishinaabe), who is the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and other tribal leaders, talk about survivors and the work they’ve done to bring these stories out of the shadows. They talk a lot about how they knew going into this work that it would be difficult. The stories, the memories, the bodies. But they were not prepared for the extent of the pain and suffering. Even these experts who knew what they were in for are emotionally crumbling with the details of what has been revealed.
This is why I say “prepare yourself.” As we employ more technology and uncover the truth, there are bound to be many more discoveries of children’s bodies, mass graves and other disturbing findings of atrocities that will make it into public view. There will be many more moments of deep pain and sadness as we process what has happened and try to make sense of our responsibility. During this time in history — of racial reckoning with the settler colonial project — our minds can become overwhelmed. We can feel helpless and turn away from our responsibility to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
The hardest truth to deal with is that we are mourning the bodies of these 215 children — yes, they need to be mourned. We are not yet mourning the loss experienced by those who survived. We are not yet dealing with the broken communities, loss of language, culture, heritage. There are so many walking graveyards of people who talk about how they cannot feel love. They cannot hold their own children because of what they experienced in these institutions. The pain is manifested personally, spiritually and communally. Prepare yourself to understand all of the ripples of what it means to have Indigeneity forced from you. Today, shed some tears and then prepare to work to rebuild, support, engage, listen and finally understand.
Here in Yellow Springs, we are on the land of the Shawnee, Miami and many Tribal Nations who call this land home — who were forcibly removed, many of their children put into residential schools not far from here. Mourn for them and prepare to reckon with their stories.
*The writer belongs to the Anishinaabe people from White Earth Nation and is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from the Ottertail Pillager Band of Indians.