As It Happens

As Canada grapples with residential school legacy, the U.S. looks to its own history

As Canadians grapple with the discoveries of children's remains at residential schools sites, Americans are about to get a wake-up call of their own, says a descendant of U.S. Native American boarding school survivors.

The U.S. had its own system of Native American boarding schools, and it's now looking for children's remains

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, pictured here by a lake in Minnesota, is the chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. (Leslie Crane Photography/National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

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WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As Canadians grapple with the discoveries of children's remains at residential schools sites, Americans are about to get a wake-up call of their own, says Christine Diindiisi McCleave.

Diindiisi McCleave, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation in North Dakota, has been fighting for years to unearth the truth about what happened to thousands of Native American children in federally-funded, church-run boarding schools. And on Tuesday, the U.S. government announced it will do just that.

"We have been wanting the federal government to acknowledge this policy and these experiences that our relatives have had that have caused trauma and harm for many generations," Diindiisi McCleave, the CEO National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"This was the culmination of decades and generations of people's prayers."

Listen l Christine Diindiisi McCleave describes church-run boarding schools in the U.S. 

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday that the U.S. will launch an investigation into the history of the boarding schools in the country, seeking to identify the schools and the locations of any unmarked burial sites.

The announcement, Halaand said, was prompted by news of a grisly discovery last month in British Columbia, in which the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said a preliminary ground scan revealed what are believed to be the remains of as many as 215 Indigenous children buried at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School.

Haaland is Native American herself, and her own grandparents were taken to U.S. boarding schools. On June 11, she wrote in the Washington Post that the news out of Kamloops made her "sick to [her] stomach."

"But the deaths of Indigenous children at the hands of government were not limited to that side of the border," she added.

On Thursday, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School. It's not yet clear how many were children.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland has announced an investigation into her country's history of federally funded, church-run boarding schools to assimilate Native American children. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. 

A national inquiry revealed the extent of abuse and neglect the children faced in those schools. The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commission of Canada has found evidence that 4,100 children died of disease, malnourishment, suicide and more, but says the true total is likely much higher. Many of those children remain unaccounted for.

Residential schools vs. U.S. boarding schools

Diindiisi McCleave says the story south of the border is much the same. 

"We've heard the stories from boarding school students in this country. We know that many of the same horrors took place, many of the same abuses, absolutely," she said. 

The U.S. federal government funded church-run boarding schools for Native Americans from 1819 through the 1960s under the Indian Civilization Act.

"The purpose was to assimilate Native people, to turn us into farmers and labourers and domestic servants, essentially. I think that's maybe from the settler standpoint," she said. "But from our standpoint, it was, you know, to eradicate our way of life, to destroy our language and our culture and break apart our families."

Ground penetrating radar work began at the start of this month to help the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan locate unmarked graves near the Marieval Indian Residential School. (Submitted by Cowessess First Nation)

There's no official data on how many boarding schools operated in the U.S., how many children were taken to them, or how many never came home. 

NABS has conducted its own investigation and estimates there were 367 boarding schools in the U.S. — more than double the 139 residential schools in Canada. Because of that, Diindiisi McCleave suspects twice as many children were taken from their homes in the U.S., and that twice as many may have died. 

'This work is personal for me'

Like Halaand, Diindiisi McCleave is also a descendant of boarding school survivors. 

"This work is personal for me," she said. "There is definitely a mixed legacy of these boarding school experiences in my family, and it has most definitely impacted my mother, me and my children."

She says her great-grandfather was taken to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he played football with Native American sports legend Jim Thorpe.

"That's really something I'm proud of," she said. "At the same time, I'm also saddened by the fact that he was there at Carlisle and had this experience."

Her grandfather was taken to the Marty Mission School in South Dakota and "he did not have a positive experience," she said. "He said he never wanted to step foot in the church again."

Diindiisi McCleave is hoping the U.S. government investigation will reveal more details about the schools, and put the country on the path to adopting its own truth and reconciliation commission — something that will force Americans to reckon with the country's history.

"There's definitely a lot of people who are ready to hear this and ready to look at the truth and ready to move forward and change our society for the better in terms of how we treat each other as human beings," she said. 

"And yet we also know there are still other people who, for whatever reason, won't be ready. And that doesn't mean that we won't still move forward."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Christine Diindiisi McCleave produced by Kevin Robertson. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


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