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Uncovering the True Horrors of Indian Residential Schools

Trigger warning: This piece contains sensitive content involving the abuse of children.

The truth never stays hidden forever.

This summer, non-Natives were shocked and horrified to learn that the remains of thousands of Indigenous children are buried in unmarked graves at residential and boarding schools in Canada and the United States.

It began on May 27, when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation of British Columbia announced that they had uncovered the remains of 215 students near Kamloops Indian Residential School. Indigenous children, some as young as three years old, died there after being taken to the institution, which was run by the Catholic church until the federal government assumed control in the 1970s. According to the nation’s chief, Rosanne Casimir, the missing children are undocumented deaths, meaning that to their knowledge the families were never told of their passing.

But that was just the start. Within the week, the Muskowekwan First Nation of Saskatchewan announced that, after working in partnership with two universities, they had also found at least 35 unmarked graves near the former Catholic-operated Muskowekwan Indian Residential School before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The work had begun in 2018 but was put on hold due to the pandemic. The community held a ceremony for the spirits of the dead Indigenous children that they had found, but they’re still looking for more graves. The school was open until 1997.

Soon after, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation of Manitoba released a statement that they too are recovering remains found in 104 “potential graves” at three separate sites near Brandon Indian Residential School, which was run by both Methodist and United churches from 1895 to 1972. Records account for only 78 bodies and some that have been found are not within sites designated as cemeteries.

As a Native woman and the daughter of a boarding school survivor, each of these grisly discoveries has been absolutely soul-crushing for me to process. But hearing word of the remains of Dakota children being found at Brandon really hit close to home. They are a part of my Native Nation, the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota Sioux). Members of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation descend from Dakota who left Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, when the U.S. government broke our treaties, starved us, hung 38 of our warriors in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, put bounties on our scalps, and exiled us from our ancestral homelands.

The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is concerned about not only uncovering the remains of their dead but identifying them as well. “The children buried at these sites must have their identities restored and their stories told,” said Jennifer Bone, Sioux Valley Chief, in a video statement.

Then, on June 24, the Cowessess First Nation said it had found an astonishing 751 unmarked burial sites near the former Catholic-run Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Their Chief, Cadmus Delorme, said the area is being treated as a “crime scene.”

Right after the announcement by Cowessess First Nation, the Lower Kootenay Band of Ktunaxa First Nation stated that the bodies of 182 children had been found at the Catholic-run St. Eugene’s Mission School in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Some were buried only three or four feet below ground.

Children's red dresses are staked along a highway near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

Children’s red dresses are staked along a highway near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.


Part of the small memorial honoring the recently discovered mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School

Part of the small memorial honoring the recently discovered mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School.

Rick Madonik

Folks have reacted by setting up memorials in honor of the children all over North America. Others may be responding by setting fires. While no suspects have been named, since news broke that more than 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been discovered at residential schools in Canada, fires have destroyed four Catholic churches located on Indigenous lands. Additional churches and statues of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth, and other historical figures were vandalized on Canada Day, July 1.

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