In May, a horrific discovery in British Columbia caught the world’s attention: The unmarked gravesites of hundreds of Indigenous children, buried near the boarding school they were forced to attend by their government and the Catholic Church in a mass effort to assimilate them into white culture.
Since then, over 1,300 graves have been found near five Indian residential schools in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. For many non-Native people, these gravesite findings and subsequent apology from the Canadian government marked the first time they had learned about the schools.
The dark and complex legacy of these institutions is not unique to Canada. The United States’ implementation of the residential school system closely mirrors its northern neighbor.
“It’s all come to light in Canada, and it’s like the tip of the iceberg — oh my God, just wait til they start looking here,” said Linda Cobe, who attended a Michigan school in Harbor Springs.
But the American government has done far less to acknowledge that history or even mention it in history books. That is, until recently.
In June, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered a federal investigation into the history to identify all of the schools, uncover the scale of lives lost and look into the consequences of the schools.
Haaland’s investigation seeks to acknowledge the histories in order to help Native people today heal from the collective trauma. As the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland has personal ties to the schools, noting she is “a product of these horrific assimilation policies.” Her great-grandfather was sent away to the flagship U.S. Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn., usually referred to as the Carlisle school.
“I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel,” Haaland said. “But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
Michigan is no different from other states that have contributed to this dark chapter of not-so-distant United States history.