Find, Name, Return, and Honor All Indigenous Boarding School Victims
September 30th marks Orange Shirt Day. A legacy of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project in Williams Lake, British Columbia, this day of remembrance and reconciliation promotes awareness of the traumatic experiences thousands of Native children in North America faced in the residential boarding schools that assimilation-minded governments forced them to attend beginning in the 1800s.
One such Native child was Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose impoverished family bought her a bright new orange shirt to wear on her first day of school. Webstad was initially excited to attend a mission school; however, her enthusiasm vanished once she realized that the so-called educational missions of these institutions centered around demonizing and extinguishing her Native identity.
The facility operators immediately stripped Webstad of all her clothes, including her new orange shirt, but clothing was far from all they took from Phyllis and her peers. Ms. Webstad is the creator of Orange Shirt Day and now thousands of Americans wear orange shirts on September 30 to remember everything Native children had taken away from them, from their clothes and hair to their families, languages, cultures, and customs.
Many of these children weren't only stripped of their childhood innocence and identities; they were also stripped of their lives. One academic researcher estimates that up to 40,000 Native children may have died in or because of their mistreatment at American residential schools. Survivors have documented many horror stories of the cruel conditions faced, which they say included beatings, verbal abuse, and having food withheld. Parents showed up to check on their children only to be told that they died and no one could locate them. Their whereabouts have been a complete mystery for nearly 200 years — until now.
This May, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of 215 children — some as young as three — in the mass grave at a former Canadian residential school. Weeks later, another Indigenous Nation found 751 unmarked graves at the former site of another one of these institutions.
On this Orange Shirt Day, we feel hopeful to have an administration in Washington, D.C. committed to investigating this dark chapter in U.S. history and uncovering whether there are any similarly lost children here. Shortly after hearing the news out of Canada, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a federal probe into the "the loss of human life and the lasting consequences" that occurred at boarding schools in the U.S.
Her memorandum announcing the investigation states that "the primary goal of the investigation shall be to identify boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible student burial sites located at or near school facilities; and the identities and Tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations."
While some commentators pin 1869 as the year the first U.S. residential boarding school opened, the Shawnee Tribe knows from experience that Native children were sent to U.S.-backed boarding schools well before then. Established in 1839, the Shawnee Indian Mission in Kansas is one of the earliest residential schools. Our Nation is collaborating with state and local officials in Kansas to protect this site and help uncover the truth of our children’s’ history.
Fortunately, Secretary Haaland appears to recognize that the U.S. boarding school program began earlier than many acknowledge currently. Her announcement of the investigation indicates that the DOI oversaw and implemented "the Indian boarding school program (Program) from 1819 (the year the assimilation-minded Indian Civilization Act passed) to 1969." This is cause for optimism that the administration will take a comprehensive look at all these schools — not just those that opened after an arbitrary year.
Every child who endured these schools' conditions deserves to be found, named, returned, and honored. With residential school attendance totaling thousands, this is no small undertaking, and the federal government needs all the help it can get. As such, it must consult with every affected Tribe and allocate resources — including funding for geological surveys and access to federal archives — to ensure this investigation goes as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Most Tribes have been tracking this issue long before the U.S. government, so they will provide inestimable help in steering the probe in the right direction.
The Department of Interior is well poised to capitalize on the momentum inspired by this day of national recognition to heal the lingering pain felt in Native communities everywhere. We are confident that the Department will do everything in its power to turn over the stones of the past and help us finally gain some closure over this horrific policy. We look forward to working with Secretary Haaland and her staff to chart a new path towards healing and reconciliation.
Ben Barnes is the chief of the Shawnee Tribe, a federally recognized Native American Tribe headquartered in Oklahoma.