Canadians are faced with an ugly truth. For more than a century, their government separated indigenous children from their parents and placed them in residential schools where they were forced to assimilate. Hundreds not.
Similar schools also existed in the US
Following the horrors and unexplained deaths recently revealed at Canada’s former Indigenous residential schools, there are renewed calls for justice at more than 350 similar schools in the U.S.
“Many, many lives have been affected here,” Willie Johnson said. “Not only from the students who died here, but also from their descendants.”
Johnson belongs to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. He and the tribe are leading the effort to educate the public about what happened at the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in central Michigan.
Run by the federal government, the school, like its counterparts, aimed to aggressively assimilate children into the non-indigenous culture. About 12,000 indigenous children passed through it before it closed in 1934.
“If we can imagine some students as young as 2 years old, being away from your family, it was very devastating for a lot of young people to learn to be assimilated into the white culture,” Johnson said.
The tribe says many of the students were severely emotionally and physically abused, just like in Canada, and hundreds died.
Paul Walker is also Saginaw Chippewa. His grandfather was sent to Mt. Pleasant.
His father was forced to attend a boarding school in northern Michigan called Holy Childhood of Jesus, run by the Catholic Church.
So did Walker and his five siblings. He attended the school from first to fifth grade.
Walker recalls his journey to Holy Childhood, beginning with an ultimatum to his mother.
“They came and told my mother that we had to go somewhere, that she would never see us again,” he said. “So they basically threatened to give us up for adoption, which happened a lot in the ’70s, even in the ’80s.”
Walker’s memories of his time at the school are full of physical and mental trauma.
“We weren’t allowed to speak our native language,” Walker said. “We were told we were worth nothing. We would never make any money. We were dirty.”
He said the whole purpose of the school was to “get rid of our culture. It was a form of cultural genocide. It really was.”
Home Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Indian cabinet member, recently announced a new investigation into abuse of the schools — which had been in operation for more than a century and held and estimated 60,000 Native American children at one point.
Walker says his painful past led him to embrace his heritage. But the burden remains heavy for him.
“It’s heartbreaking, but for myself I feel guilty,” he said. “I’m a survivor, I’m still here. I’m successful with what I do. I’m successful with who I’ve become. I feel for those who didn’t, who couldn’t.”
A lasting reminder of the stark truths and injustices passed down through generations.