DAVENPORT – About a hundred people, most of them in orange, were sitting in a field of dead grass.
Fort Spokane visitors, many of the Spokane Indian Tribe, were crammed into small family groups that were scattered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During Thursday’s ceremony, held to commemorate and honor the thousands of local children who died in Indian boarding schools, the gaps felt sober in the crowd.
“Look in these empty rooms for those who are not here today,” said Dave BrownEagle, a Spokane tribe.
Dozens of similar gatherings were held in the United States and Canada on Thursday. People across North America wore orange clothes in solidarity with the children who died from their families in schools that were supposed to destroy their Native American identities.
From the early 1800s to the 1970s, tens of thousands of local children attended hundreds of Indian boarding schools. Many were taken from their families against their will and thousands died of disease.
Schools were established to bring Native Americans into white society – “kill the Indian, save the man” was the mantra – and although in some cases they provided the children with an education they would not otherwise have received, they were culturally devastating to tribes. Children were often beaten for speaking their languages or for practicing their traditional customs.
The meeting at Fort Spokane – which served as an Indian boarding school in the early 20th century after soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War – came after a handful of macabre discoveries sparked international outrage that summer.
In May, the First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announced that they had found the bodies of 215 children in unmarked graves at a boarding school in Kamloops, British Columbia, using ground penetrating radar. Tribes and First Nations have since found hundreds of other graves in several former boarding schools.
Dan Foster, Superintendent of Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, was the first to speak at the event. He started with a discussion about the founding of America.
In 1776, 13 colonies banded together to overthrow a repressive regime, Foster said. The founding fathers wrote a declaration of independence, which stood up for high ideals: All people are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and have a right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
But America has not always lived up to these lofty ideals, said Foster.
“These principles were just a distant wish,” he said.
Foster said that while Indian boarding schools were created with good intentions, they should be seen today in the same context as the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, the repression of women’s rights, and slavery.
“It’s important to remember the things that happened in our country,” said Foster. “We can be better. We can treat others equally. “
Pat Moses, a Spokane tribal elder, said a prayer and hymn in Salish after playing in a drum circle. He emphasized in his speech that the boarding schools threatened to destroy indigenous cultures and traditions, even if they had helped some children prepare for life in the modern world.
“Fortunately, some of our grandmothers and grandfathers managed to escape from boarding schools,” said Moses.
Thursday speakers stressed that despite the damage that boarding schools have caused, the boarding schools have ultimately failed to destroy aboriginal traditions.
Warren Seyler, a Spokane tribe member and expert on tribal history, said that young indigenous people today are hungry to learn about their cultures. That’s an exciting change, Seyler said, noting that while he was growing up and attending public schools in the 1960s and 1970s, he never learned tribal history.
The tribes of the Pacific Northwest have been fighting for their identity for centuries, Seyler said.
“They have been trying to change us since 1810, when the first fur trader arrived,” he said.
Seyler told the crowd about the history of the Spokane tribe with the Fort Spokane boarding school. For example, parents were often threatened with prison for not allowing their children to attend, he said.
Speaking Salish at school in Fort Spokane would whip a child, Seyler said. Children who ran away and were caught were locked in narrow cells built for soldiers – the ceremony took place on Thursday in front of the small brick building where these cells are still housed today. The building is now a museum that documents both boarding school and military history.
Matilda Sampson, a member of the Adams Lake Band, who now lives in Spokane but attended Kamloops boarding school as a child, shared her experiences at the now famous institution. There are many things she doesn’t remember anymore.
“I firmly believe that I just blocked it,” she said. “I had to be someone I am not.”
BrownEagle said he was still injured and angry about the unmarked grave finds.
He said he was angry because Americans and Canadians shouldn’t grapple with the horror of boarding schools now, in 2021. People should have faced this terrible story a long, long time ago, he said. The boarding schools should not be forgotten.
“You are finally looking for the corpses; They’re finally finding the graves, ”said BrownEagle. “We knew they were there.”
BrownEagle said young people must do everything possible to ensure the survival of the language and customs boarding schools that have been tried to wipe out.
“We survived so you don’t have to,” he said. “Live. Learn your language. Learn your songs.”
Monica Tonasket, a Spokane tribe, was one of the final speakers. A few minutes before the ceremony ended with a traditional song and dance, she shared her thoughts.
Tonasket recognized the pain all natives are feeling in the wake of the grave discoveries.
Children who were traumatized in boarding schools passed their trauma on to their children, Tonasket said. The boarding schools caused intergenerational damage that continues to affect natives today, she said.
But just because the aborigines still bear some scars from their ancestors’ experiences in boarding schools, it doesn’t mean they have to bear that burden forever.
“We won’t forget anything about what happened, but we can move on,” said Tonasket. “We’re still here. We survived.”