Events bring awareness to children’s deaths at Indian boarding schools, honor survivors

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“Every Native person standing here is a victory, because you were not supposed to be here. They did everything they could to not have us be here, for us not to remember our ways, songs, our ancestors, and that is something to celebrate,” Jason Swartly, Santee Sioux, said to a crowd gathered to honor National Indian Boarding School survivors.

Sept. 30 was designated as a day of remembrance, along with Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day, to raise awareness of the tragic legacy of residential schools and honor the survivors.

To date, the remains of 5,209 children have been found on residential school premises in Canada. In the United States, the number is at 1,079. Many feel that number will rise due to many students running away and never making it home.

Many students, including very young children, were forcibly removed from their homes and sent far away to schools like Haskell and Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Like many boarding schools, Haskell was meant to strip Native cultural ties to assimilate students into American society. Once at school, students had their hair cut off, traditional clothes removed, and they were forced to speak English.

At Haskell on Thursday, the Student Government Association (SGA) held a walk and opened the cultural museum for the day — a totally different mindset from when the school first opened, now embracing cultural traditions and encouraging their students to learn their tribal ways.

Rhonda LeValdo / Contributed Attendees visit the Haskell Indian Nations University cultural museum on Sept. 30, 2021.

SGA Vice President Ismael Osegueda, Tohono O’Odham, wanted to make sure his fellow peers learn about the beginnings of Haskell.

“I am hoping to bring awareness to the history of the school. I didn’t know as much as I do now, and the kids need to understand and know what the past was about.”

Haskell student Timothy Denego, Wind River reservation, talked about the cemetery on the school grounds.

“It impacts the students a lot because there is a cemetery back there for the kids who passed on, and who knows how many haven’t been found. Those were the only ones who were confirmed and something to keep in mind, it is an unknown number, it is daunting to think about, kind of scary. Those are our ancestors. That is why this day is important.”

Rhonda LeValdo / Contributed The cemetery at Haskell Indian Nations University

The Kansas City Indian Center held a remembrance event at Heritage Park in Olathe. While setting up, a rainbow appeared, an eagle flew overhead and then the clouds in the west had just a bit of sun peeking through with what many in attendance thought looked like a person standing there looking at them.

Executive Director Gaylene Crouser, Standing Rock Lakota, said they chose the park as it was a stop on the Potawatomi trail of tears when they were forcibly removed from their homelands to Kansas. “So many of their own people suffered and died, unfortunately, and we wanted to have our memorial here.”

Crouser thought it was a good start to inform the public of what happened to Native people.

“Bringing the community together and talking about it, ways to heal, bring awareness, getting our kids home, getting those investigations started, the better off we will be.”

As Swartley sang his honor song, he made sure to tell everyone this is not a sad song — “You are here, and we honor all who survived and those little warriors who didn’t.”

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