Equity & Diversity

Thousands of Indigenous Students Died in Canadian Boarding Schools, Panel Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 07, 2014 2 min read
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A special commission in Canada working to create a full and accurate record of what happened to the indigenous children who attended that nation’s residential boarding schools recently concluded that at least 4,000 students—and likely many more —died while living in the government-funded schools.

Those deaths were the result of failures by the authorities to protect children from fires, prevent deadly diseases, and shield them from abusers who worked in the schools, according to a recent story in Canada’s National Post newspaper. The deaths were reported by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel set up in 2008 to dig into the nation’s history of taking more than 150,000 indigenous children from their families and communities and placing them in church-run residential boarding schools where they were forced to give up their native languages and cultural practices.

The boarding schools operated in Canada for more than 100 years. The last one was shut down in 1996. In 2008, Canada’s prime minister issued a national apology to survivors of the residential schools.

Some 80,000 former students of the boarding schools are still alive, according to the commmission. Many have reported being the victims of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. The commission has been working to gather as much firsthand testimony as possible from survivors, collect those records, and eventually establish a national research center. The commission is one component of a massive legal settlement between the Canadian government and survivors. That settlement also includes payments to those who were affected.

In the United States during much of the 19th century and well into the 20th, thousands of American Indian children also attended residential schools, run either by religious organizations or the federal government. For many tribal elders who attended those schools as children, the experience was traumatic because of extended separations from their families and forced assimilation.

As I learned from interviewing several tribal elders recently, those negative schooling experiences continue to impact some younger American Indian students, whose own parents and grandparents associate schooling mostly with suppression of Indian identity.

One place I tried to visit during my reporting project on American Indian education—but was never granted permission to do so by the federal Bureau of Indian Education—was Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif. Sherman, a boarding school that serves Native students from all over the country, has been in operation for more than 100 years. Although I couldn’t get onto the main campus, I did visit the small and wonderful museum that is open to the public. There, you can see dozens of class photos and comb through student registration records spanning many decades.

I also drove the five or so miles from the main campus to visit the school’s small cemetery, where some 70 former students and school staff members are buried, most in unmarked graves.

As I learned from Lorene Sisquoc, the museum’s curator and a teacher of cultural traditions at Sherman, 11 of the children buried in the cemetery died while at Sherman from a typhoid fever outbreak. They were the first to be buried in the modest cemetery that over the years has been surrounded by gated, suburban neighborhoods.

(Photo: Some 70 former students and staff members of the Sherman Indian School in Riverside, Calif., are buried in a cemetery several miles from the main campus.) -- Swikar Patel for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.