No Longer Able to Hide, Canada’s Residential School Developments Instigate Policy Changes in the US

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In a matter of just two weeks, the first Indigenous cabinet member in American history publicly expressed her deep personal disappointment at the depressing residential school revelations emanating from north of the border.

It was 11 days before Deb Haaland, one of the first Native Americans ever been elected to Congress and President Joe Biden’s newly appointed secretary of the interior took the matters into her own hands. Haaland wrote in a memo that the department shall investigate the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of the residential Indian boarding schools.

The period between Haaland’s June 22 memo, and May 27, the day the B.C First Nation announced the saddening discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school seemed like the blink of an eye.

It rarely happens that developments on Canadian soil prompt such rapid and dramatic policy decisions in the U.S., a telling measure of enormity for what Haaland’s investigation may unleash in a country where the Indigenous issues are seldom considered important.

A prominent U.S. Indigenous activist and lead counsel for the North Dakota-based Lakota People’s Law Project, Chase Iron Eyes said that this is a reckoning happening. They don’t teach these things in schools, not in the Canadian schools, not in the American schools that there are mass graves of children at church-run, government-sponsored residential schools and boarding schools.

They are no longer able to hide the truths.

Haaland wrote in a column that her great grandfather was taken to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Its founder had coined the phrase that Kills the Indian and saves the man which correctly reflects the influences that farmed those policies at that time.

An Anthropology professor and Indigenous issues specialist at the University of Texas at Austin named Circe Sturm said that the scale, in terms of sheer numbers is fairly incomparable.  Sturm said that by the turn of the century after the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs takes over the Indigenous schooling from the Christian missionaries who started the effort, the department was operating 147-day schools and 81 boarding schools on US reservations.

Haaland’s Indian Boarding School Initiative shall seek to identify all of the schools that were a part of the respective program with a specific emphasis on any records related to the cemeteries or potential burial sites which may later be used to assist in locating the unidentified human remains.

The department is also set to liaise with the Indigenous communities across the U.S. including Hawaii and Alaska, on how to best handle such remains with plans for a final report by next year April.

Haaland wrote that many who survived the ordeal returned home changed unimaginably and that their experiences still resonate across the generations.

The Indigenous leaders in Canada have been pressurizing Trudeau to secure an apology on the Canadian soil from Pope Francis himself for the role the Catholic Church had played in operating the residential schools.