Two dozen Minnesota tribal leaders gathered in Hinckley recently for an unprecedented and grievous task. They were there to discuss horrific discoveries of mass, unmarked graves at Indian boarding schools in Canada — and to contemplate the very real possibility that similar discoveries await us here in Minnesota.
Minnesota once had 16 such institutions, including a number of contract schools operated by religious groups, similar to the practice in Canada. They were created, in a phrase common at the time, to "kill the Indian and save the man" by taking Indian children from their homes, stripping them of their culture and training them mostly for manual and domestic labor. The schools operated across the country from the 1860s to the 1960s.
Kevin Dupuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and others have a different word for what happened to them: genocide. At the private meeting, which an editorial writer attended, Dupuis said, "What else would you call forced assimilation, destroying a culture?" He added: "If corporal punishment was used to silence, it's only my opinion, but I believe people are buried out there without formal cemeteries."
Most every tribe in the state attended the conference, most in person, a few by Zoom, to process the news of the Canadian graves, to tell their own stories, to grieve their losses together … and to act.
"We need to walk these properties, get boots on the ground to do imaging," Dupuis said. "We have penetrating radar. These things can be done. It's a start."
Minnesota is already at the epicenter of nascent efforts to determine what happened to those children. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, formed in 2012 after national discussions about the need for a Canadian-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S., is based in Minneapolis. The coalition is also working with the others to submit to the United Nations a call for the U.S. to provide a full accounting of the Indian children in its custody.
Cathy Chavers, the first female president of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, recalled being told of frantic parents hiding children because Indian agents "were coming to take them." The incidents aren't recorded in government documents, but rather in oral histories, passed down through generations. "It's the history of stories that we hear from our elders," she said, of strict rules and swift, often severe, punishment. Children could be beaten for an infraction as mild as forgetting the English word for meat. Chavers recalled stories of children at Vermilion, where her grandmother was taken, being doused in kerosene to scrape off dirt. "I want to know the truth," she said. "I want to know why are we not holding people responsible? They made us who we are today. I'm just upset."
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, herself a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo tribe, is launching an investigation of U.S. sites. That is commendable and overdue. But Minnesota, with its many boarding school sites, has a strong obligation to cut through the red tape if it can and, as some tribal leaders proposed, fund a similar effort based here and led by the tribes themselves.
This state has learned some hard lessons recently about the need for communities to be part of solutions, and not just acted upon. Federal and state governments should ensure that tribes themselves drive the investigations and set the pace.
Kevin Jensvold, chairman of the Upper Sioux Community, said at the meeting that "I come with the heaviest of hearts, because we are invisible in our own home. I am crying because our ancestors' bones are scattered … . The interior secretary says we will investigate the loss of human life. But we need to know more than that."
There is a Lakota word, he said, "Hakikta — to look behind you. We need to investigate the cause, not just the deaths."
This country and state have not always wanted to look behind. It is painful and yes, sometimes shameful. Tadd Johnson, the University of Minnesota's first senior director of American Indian tribal nations relations and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, said his own grandparents were taken to Indian boarding schools at 5 and 6 years of age.
"When any group of Indians is asked who had relatives taken," Johnson said, "every single hand goes up. This impacts every family. We are still dealing with the effects today. We all know tremendous sadness occurred at these schools. But we need the truth. Too many children are unaccounted for."