Race Issues: America’s Residential School Survivors Deserve a Louder Voice

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 served as an important year for the United States to reflect on its systems of oppression against Black Americans. Following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, millions protested across the country in solidarity during an unforgettable summer of unity and education. Similarly, just north of the U.S. border in my home country, Canada, the discovery of the remains of thousands of Indigenous children this past spring prompted many of us to organize in recognition of the nation’s history of forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples. 

One such action involved circulating the hashtag #CancelCanadaDay, which urged people to resist celebrating the national holiday as the Indigenous community struggled with the mounting toll of uncovered children’s remains. This campaign was an undeniable success. Scrolling through social media that day, my feeds were almost completely rid of the usual pool party and barbecue posts that tend to dominate Canada Day. As I walked to a protest at Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, I noticed that few passersby had chosen to wear the national colors, with many opting to wear orange as a symbol of solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Now, with a federal election approaching on Sept. 20, Indigenous issues are once again under Canada’s national spotlight. 

When people talk of a “stain” on Canada’s national history, the first thing that comes to mind for many is the residential school system, which, as part of a larger effort to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples into the dominant European culture, displaced over 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes into boarding schools between 1883 and 1997. The conditions in these schools were most often inhumane, making children vulnerable to disease, starvation and abuse at the hands of school staff. Official records state that this led to the deaths of 4,120 students, though a lack of consistent record-keeping means that this may only be a fraction of the real death toll. Even after this system was abolished, the generational economic and health disadvantages for families of survivors has been an extreme barrier to social mobility and educational attainment.

A fact that is often overlooked, however, is that this system in Canada was adapted from an existing one in the U.S., which most notably included the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at Pennsylvania, led by U.S. general Richard Henry Pratt. An inquiry led by Minneapolis’ National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) estimates that the U.S. government, under the Indian Civilization Act, funded 367 residential schools from 1819 to the 1960s. This figure is more than twice the 139 schools hosted in Canada, leading NABS to suspect that in the U.S., more than twice the number of children were removed from their homes, and more than twice the number of children perished.

Despite the chilling reality of the residential school system in the U.S., this isn’t an issue I’ve ever seen being promoted by my American peers on social media, nor brought up for discussion in any of my classes at Colgate. Yet, with the high level of sensitivity to current events I’ve seen from many of my classmates here, as well as the substantial effort by professors to link academic concepts to social justice topics, I know we can do better as a community to learn more about Indigenous American history and uplift the stories of Indigenous residential school survivors.

On a federal level, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland of the Biden administration announced in June that her agency was beginning an investigation into the matter, which is more commonly known in the U.S. as “Native American boarding schools.” Little has been disclosed since then. What I believe to be an important next step is for Joe Biden himself to address survivors of Indigenous boarding schools, which would hopefully ignite a national discussion that would trickle down into schools. Countries on both sides of the border have a long way to go when it comes to Indigenous reparations, but the United States must do more to bring this issue into the front of the public consciousness. This must occur so that the public can educate themselves and make a call to action accordingly.