Graves of indigenous children at former Pa. boarding school prompt investigation

Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 2:24 PM CDT
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(CNN) - It’s a new reckoning in the U.S.’s painful relationship with Native Americans.

The remains of nine children found on the grounds of a former Pennsylvania boarding school has prompted a federal investigation into a dark chapter in American history.

During 19th and much of the 20th century, many indigenous children were taken from their families and tribes and sent to boarding schools, many run by religious organizations or the federal government, in an effort to indoctrinate them into white Christian culture.

The uncovering of the remains is a realization of just how many more are left to be found.

On the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, the U.S.’s nearly two-century effort to eradicate native languages and cultures continues to traumatize.

In 2015, Malory Arrow went on a trip to Washington D.C. with her tribe’s youth council.

They stopped at a former boarding school for Native American children in Pennsylvania.

“Getting there, it wasn’t, I didn’t feel anything … I didn’t, Like, I felt like I was supposed to feel getting to the school… but it wasn’t until we got to the grave sites that, um, we all started crying. We all felt that energy there,” Arrow said.

They found graves of children their age from their own Sicangu Lakota tribe, taken from their very reservation more than100 years ago.

“It’s like mourning a relative you didn’t know you had,” Christopher Eagle Bear said.

They left with one question: “Why don’t we bring them home? We didn’t have an answer for that, you know. Why don’t we bring them home?” he said.

Indigenous children in the U.S. used to be forced into boarding schools.

“Take the Indian out, save the child, was kind of the talk back then,” said Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Many children suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, malnourishment and disease. No one’s really sure how many died.

The more than 900 unmarked grave sites found near just two Canadian schools is a grim indicator of what could be found in the U.S.

“If you look at the numbers here from the United States, we had twice as many schools. You can basically just estimate that our numbers will be double what they found in Canada,” said Christine Cleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Many tribal leaders believe the generational trauma from erasing people’s identity directly relates to the chronic issues on reservations today: poverty, addiction, suicide.

“No one went untouched. No family went untouched, so we need to find out the truth,” Bordeaux said.

Finding that truth is what the federal investigation was all about, but it is likely to be uncomfortable.

As for those children Arrow and her friends found in that graveyard years ago, they are coming home.

In the largest repatriation of its kind, the remains of nine Lakota children from that former boarding school will begin their journey back next week.

“We saw the change we needed, so we became the change,” Asia Black Bull said.

The young Lakotans plan to escort the children home. Eagle Bear may even sing to them in their own language, something the boarding school would have forbidden.

“It’s just the beginning. There is so much more boarding schools that we have yet. This is just the spark,” Black Bull said.

They know much more still needs to be done. Many more children need to be found.

“You look at it as why do these schools, you know, a lot of the white children got to attend schools with playgrounds. Our children had to attend schools with graveyards, and that should be a wakeup call now,” Black Bull said.

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