Members of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton stand in solidarity with First Nation, Inuit, and Métis peoples grieving the children whose remains have been found in unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools across what is now Canada.
We urge the Canadian government to act on the Final Reports and Calls to Action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015. As the TRC report makes clear, the existence of unmarked burial sites at former “schools” has long been known, and yet the Canadian government has done little to fund or assist the work of recovery.
At the end of May this year, 215 children were found in an unmarked grave at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Kamloops School site is located on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, whose members used radar technology to recover the children and begin the work of caretaking for their remains. In June, Cowessess First Nation found 751 unmarked graves at the site of former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess 73 Reserve.
Residential schools emerged under the British empire and were formalized following the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1894 made school attendance compulsory for Indigenous children, and there were approximately 150 residential schools running in Canada from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Kamloops Residential School was established in 1890 and Marieval Residential School in 1898, and both were operated by the Catholic Church until 1969. From 1969, the Canadian government took control of the schools. Kamloops closed in 1978 and the Canadian government gave up Marieval to the Cowessess First Nation in 1987. The last residential school closed in 1996.
This is far from distant history, and the traumatic legacies of the residential school system persist. Moreover, a commitment to “reconciliation” is meaningless if Canada fails to reckon with ongoing forms of settler colonialism in the present:
- the violation of treaty rights and encroachments onto Indigenous lands and waters by predatory extraction projects;
- the government failure to address gendered violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQI+ people following the 2019 Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls;
- and widespread systemic racism, including Indigenous peoples’ uneven access to healthcare, over-incarceration, over-representation in the child welfare system (“the millennial scoop”), poor environmental conditions, and, among many Indigenous communities, a lack of access to clean drinking water.
Since the discovery of the unmarked graves at Kamloops and Marieval, requests for searches at residential school sites across Canada have been accumulating. Meanwhile, students and faculty at Ryerson University have started to refer to their institution as “X University,” reiterating their demand for a name change. Currently the official name of X University honors Egerton Ryerson, the 19th century architect of residential schooling in Canada. On June 6 2021, protestors toppled Ryerson’s statue, and the university administration have said that it will not be replaced.
Although specific to Canada, we recognize that the Canadian case is not unique. Across settler colonies, institutions of education and welfare have served as proxies for the abuse of Indigenous children. In the United States, Native American boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries were engines of Indigenous assimilation that were designed to keep children from their communities, break up families, weaken Indigenous sovereignty, and facilitate settler access to Indigenous land. In response to the unmarked graves found in Canada, Secretary Deb Haaland of the U.S. Department of the Interior has announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”
Just 150 miles west of Princeton is the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where this summer there are plans for the remains of ten children to be disinterred and returned to their communities: nine children will be returned to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (South Dakota) and one child to the Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island (Alaska). The history of Carlisle is not unrelated to the history of Princeton: Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian minister and alumnus of Princeton Theological Seminary, was responsible not only for stealing numerous Indigenous belongings from communities across the United States (that are now housed in the Princeton University Art Museum), but also for taking Indigenous children and transporting them to Pennsylvania to become students of Carlisle School.
Out of respect for the 215 children at Kamloops and the 751 children at Marieval, we echo the calls of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples for the Canadian government to act on the TRC report and fund searches of all residential school sites across Canada, and we call on institutions of education, such as Princeton, to research and be accountable for the various ways they are connected to genocidal systems of residential schooling.
References and Further Resources
- How to Support Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (PDF)
- How can I help? A list of resources to support Cowessess First Nation and Canada’s Indigenous Communities
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission
- Native children didn’t “lose” their lives at residential schools. Their lives were stolen
- Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
- My relatives went to a Catholic school for Native children. It was a place of horrors
- Secretary Haaland Announces Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative
- US Army to return remains of 10 Native American children to families
- Considering Sheldon Jackson: A Summer Intern Project
- Carlisle Indian School Project
- Carlisle Indian Digital Resource Center