The search for stolen Native children

Native students from Fort Albany Residential School reading in class overseen by a Catholic nun, circa 1945. PHOTO: Edmund Metatawabin collection at the University of Algoma, Ontario, Canada.
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Everywhere one turns there have been stories in the press of the hundreds of graves of students found on and near the grounds of former Indian Boarding Schools (IBS) in Canada and the United States. A tragedy that came to light due to efforts of Canadian First Nation groups and U.S. Native American researchers.

These boarding schools were most active from the 1870s to the 1970s. Established by U.S. and Canadian governments, the vast majority were run by the Catholic Church.

Native families were required by law to send their children to these schools — a blatant attempt to destroy Indigenous culture. If families refused authorities would forcibly take the kids. The process of forced assimilation traumatized students. Any use of Native language, clothing, hairstyle or toys was met with brutal treatment — beatings, torture and rape — that was sometimes fatal. Flimsy housing led to pneumonia which also caused many deaths.

In the ultimate act of cruelty, students’ bodies were not sent back home for traditional burials. Instead, they were buried on IBS grounds or nearby lands and forgotten by church and state, but not the families.

Today, Native tribes are using radar technology to find and reclaim the remains of these stolen children. The goal is to finally lay them to rest on tribal lands.

Meanwhile, the damage caused by the Catholic Church and these boarding schools lives on. Many survivors became addicted to drugs or alcohol, or took out their anger and pain in acts of domestic violence. For generations, the descendants of these students have lived with a legacy of trauma. A cycle that must be broken.

In the early 2000s First Nation student-survivors in Canada sued the government and won a class action suit. The Canadian government signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement which acknowledged the damage inflicted by the schools and provided $1.9 billion for approximately 86,000 former students.

The United States government has never acknowledged that the students at Indian Boarding Schools were mistreated. Neither has the Catholic Church. The U.S. hypocritically sanctions other countries for human rights violations, but ignores its own dark history of forced assimilation of Native peoples. In my opinion, this is the worst example of human rights abuses given the vulnerability of the victims, Native children.

Some are optimistic about the appointment of Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, to be Secretary of the Interior. The first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, she inspires hope among many for the righting of wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous tribes, like the stealing of sacred land for mining and drilling purposes. We shall see.

Haaland has taken up the challenge of the boarding schools. In June, she announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative which will investigate 150 years of IBS history, identify student burial on school sites, and identify the tribal affiliations of the children. Native researchers have called for a tribal member to be included on each project investigation panel, an important demand. A full report is due on April 1, 2022. It must be made public!

Some Native leaders believe the initiative will lead to truth and justice. I would like to be as optimistic. But knowing that this is a government-led investigation into the same government’s human rights abuses on Indigenous people of America, well, I have my doubts. This effort is not led by a Native American, and it appears that finding burial sites will be more important than the treatment of students. Is this how Uncle Sam will try to settle with Native tribes? Hand over missing children’s remains and hope that former students and their families don’t ask for acknowledgment of brutal treatment at the schools and possibly compensation?

Personally, I would like the report to explain how the boarding school trauma is still felt in Native communities today. And providing compensation to fund needed mental health support would be a step toward healing.

Contact Rogers, a Chippewa elder and anti-fascist organizer, at

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