Walking Our Spirits Home
Honoring and remembering missing tribal children
What: Walking Our Spirits Home
When: 10:30 am Fri., Jun. 11
Where: Stommish Grounds
Lummi Nation will hold a mourning and memorial concurrent with indigenous tribes in British Columbia. A memorial fire will be lit at noon.
Info: dhillaire@settingsun productions.org
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
For nearly a century across the Pacific Northwest, tribal children were torn from their homes and sent to Christian residential schools—a recognized form of cultural genocide. Now the genocide has an even more direct and tragic form.
With a heavy heart, Rosanne Casimir, chief of Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation, confirmed “an unthinkable loss that was spoken about but never documented by the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”
With the help of a government grant and a ground-penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light last month—the confirmed remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Flags in Canada’s capital and across British Columbia were lowered after the discovery was announced.
“The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart—it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.
“I lost my heart, it was so much hurt and pain to finally hear, for the outside world to finally hear, what we assumed was happening there,” admitted Harvey McLeod, who attended the school for two years in the late 1960s, in a telephone interview.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the home community of the Kamloops school, which was the largest in Canada’s Indian Affairs residential school system. The Secwépemc Nation acknowledged their responsibility to caretake for these lost children.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” Casimir said. “Some were as young as 3 years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
The discovery has spurred “a collective pain and trauma” for Indigenous communities across Canada and beyond, while also fueling calls for government action to address historical and ongoing rights abuses against First Nations, Métis and Inuit. The trauma also resonates with Coast Salish communities to the south. The St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kamloops was founded and operated by an order of Catholic priests and nuns who also operated a similar residential school for children bordering the Tulalip Nation. Father Chirouse started the Tulalip school for Native boys in 1860. The Kamloops school was established in 1890 and closed down in 1978.
Between the 1860s and 1990s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend these schools, which were run by churches and aimed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white society.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded the country committed “cultural genocide” with its decades-long residential school system.
The independent commission determined that large numbers of Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools never returned to their home communities. Some children ran away, and others died at the schools. The students who did not return have come to be known as the Missing Children. The Missing Children Project documents the deaths and the burial places of youths who died while attending the schools. To date, more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school have been identified.
“We understand that this confirmed loss affects First Nations communities across British Columbia and beyond,” Casimir said. “We wish to ensure that our community members, as well as all home communities for the children who attended are duly informed.”
United Nations human rights experts have urged Canadian authorities and the Catholic Church to conduct prompt and thorough investigations into the discovery of the mass grave.
“We urge the authorities to conduct full-fledged investigations into the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding these deaths, including forensic examinations of the remains found, and to proceed to the identification and registration of the missing children,” the UN Commission on Human Rights said in a statement. They urged “similar investigations in all other Indigenous residential schools in the country,” recalling the right of victims to know the full extent of the truth about the violations endured.
For now, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc and other Native communities want to honor these children and place them to rest in a commemorative walk in Kamloops this week.
“The walk will begin at the Red Bridge” that crosses a tributary of the Fraser River in this Okanogan community, noted Daidri Marr, an event coordinator with the Adams Lake Indian Band. The Band is a member of the greater Secwépemc Nation.
“This bridge is significant as many elders have memories of crossing over into the non-native side (City of Kamloops) and the Native side (Kamloops Indian Band).
“A lot of violence had occurred at this bridge, between the non-Natives and Natives,” Marr noted. “Natives even fought amongst themselves and I have heard horror stories from the elders talking about watching people get thrown off the bridge and not surviving. This area holds a lot of grief and trauma. The Indigenous leaders and Elders/community and allies will walk across this bridge and make the walk to the Kamloops Residential school.”
Private ceremonies will be held beforehand with pipe carriers from the Secwépemc Nation inside the school. Lummi Nation plans a concurrent ceremony near their Stommish Grounds.
The town of Merritt, British Columbia, said it would keep its flags lowered for 215 hours in memory of the 215 children.
But Byron Louis, chief of the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia, posted a message of hope and resiliency: “Do not lower your head and cry, hold your head up in praise and honor them and, most importantly, support them. This is what they rightfully deserve in their service to our people. They need our praise, not pity.”
PHOTO: An impromptu memorial grows on the south steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, as are similar memorials appearing in many communities across Canada. The memorials mourn the discovery of 215 bodies in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Photo by Ted McGrath, Creative Commons