BISMARCK — Children’s shoes lined the paved path near Bismarck’s Steamboat Park on Thursday, June 3, to commemorate the ongoing trauma experienced by Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada due to the boarding schools that once held Indigenous children taken from their families.

The memorial was held after it was announced that the remains of 215 children were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said they are the remains of its missing children lost in the residential school system.

The majority of boarding schools in the U.S., known as residential schools in Canada, were operated by the Catholic Church and the government with the goal of stripping Indigenous children of their culture to assimilate them into white populations.

Many schools were built off reservations starting in the 1800s with the goal to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

It’s believed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their homes and brought to boarding schools. There, many were punished for speaking their native languages and suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

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“I just want people to know that there’s Natives out there who are still suffering — suffering from the trauma that these boarding schools, that these nuns, these priests put on children,” said Moriah Crow Eagle, organizer of the memorial.

Signs with information about Indian boarding schools lined the path near Bismarck's Steamboat Park on Thursday, June 3. Michelle Griffith / The Forum.
Signs with information about Indian boarding schools lined the path near Bismarck's Steamboat Park on Thursday, June 3. Michelle Griffith / The Forum.

The children's shoes that lined the path on Thursday were there to represent the 215 children found.

To reconcile with the Indigenous population after the trauma brought on by religious entities and the government, Canada created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The group's purpose is shedding light on the experiences of First Nations people who survived residential schools.

Crow Eagle, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said her grandfather lived in southern Alberta when he was taken to a residential school. He experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse there, she said.

The discovery of the remains of the 215 children in British Columbia caused worldwide outrage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government called on Pope Francis to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church for the trauma that was inflicted on Canada’s First Nations people, according to the Associated Press.

The remains of the 215 children also confirm what many Indigenous people have believed for a long time — that there are likely more Indigenous children buried on the grounds of boarding and residential schools, said Cheryl Kary, executive director of the Sacred Pipe Resource Center, who attended the memorial.

North Dakota and South Dakota were once home to a combined 37 boarding schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. One of those was the Bismarck Indian School once located where the North Dakota National Guard’s Fraine Barracks now stand, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The school closed in 1937 and had an enrollment average of about 100 children.

As of 2020, 73 boarding schools were still open with 15 still boarding students, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

“There are a lot of people who have no idea about the boarding schools and have no idea how that had an impact on us and how recently that was in our history,” Kary said. “So, it’s things like this where we raise awareness.”

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.