Anchorage (High North News): Most Arctic nations have been affected by assimilating and oppressive boarding school policies. Now indigenous community leaders are looking for healing as they brace for the dark truth of a government-led genocide.
In 2021 more than 1,300 unmarked graves were discovered at the sites of four former residential schools in western Canada. A discovery that shook the nation, unveiling a dark chapter of North American history.
Starting in the 1880s and lasting for much of the 20th century, more than 150,000 children from hundreds of indigenous communities across Canada were taken from their parents by force by the government and sent to residential - or boarding - schools.
In Alaska, USA, the boarding school policy of 1879 was instated, removing thousands of Native children from their communities under the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man”. In Canada, the slogan was “Kill the Indian in the child”.
That says it all.
The goal was the same: to extract Native Alaskans and Canadians from their lands and assimilate and Christianize indigenous children, turning them into cheap labor for the white community.
In the summertime, the students were loaned out or sold, leased to serve as labor servants or maids, whatever manual labor was available for them.
They always go for our babies.
“It is a matter of dollars and cents. It is about land and resources," says Benjamin Jacuk, Indigenous Researcher at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. He has been researching boarding schools for around ten years and belongs to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
During the Arctic Encounter conference in Alaska this week, he took part in a debate about the dark truth about North American boarding schools.
A story darker than any fictional horror story, where colonial powers targeted native children.
“They always go for our babies."
The quote belongs to Emily Edenshaw, President & CEO at Alaska Native Heritage Center, a young mother helping Native people heal generations of pain.
“I have been on this journey for five years now. We walk with the impacts of the abuse every day," says Edenshaw, who hosted the debate.
She especially feels the impact after becoming a mother.
“I have a four-year-old girl, and at the Heritage Center we have on display handcuffs for children," Edenshaw says, leaving it up to the audience to picture the rest.
The schools were often militarized and run by churches.
Out of the land
Chief Bill Erasmus (69) of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Canada, was lucky not to be sent to boarding school. But many of his family members were.
He admitted that this was genocide.
“The whole purpose was to move our people off the land, and it happened until the 1990s in our area," says Chief Erasmus to High North News.
The last of Canada's 139 boarding schools for indigenous children closed in 1998. Though the last ten to 15 years, the indigenous community took over the schools from the churches.
For years, the abuse and killing of indigenous children in schools were hidden.
But in 2008, after thousands of school survivors filed lawsuits, the Canadian government formally apologized for its actions, setting up a $1.9 billion compensation fund and establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But that does not fix the abuse.
As the Canadian schools were run by the Catholic Church, responsibility rests with the Pope. And last year, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize for the "catastrophic" effects of the assimilation.
“He admitted that this was genocide. And that is what happened to us. We were all part of an act of genocide by our government," says Chief Erasmus.
The Discovery Doctrine
Now the stories are passed on to future generations.
“We need to talk about it and come to grips with what happened," says the Dene Chief, and explains how racist policies still exist today.
“In which way?”
“The discovery doctrine, for example," says Erasmus.
This colors the way we see ourselves and how others see us.
An international law from 1823, saying that the discovery of territory previously unknown to Europeans gave the discovering nation title to that territory against all other European nations, and this title could be perfected by possession.
In fact, as late as this Thursday, March 30, the Vatican formally repudiated the doctrine, after decades of demands from Indigenous people to rescind the doctrine.
In a statement issued eight months after the pope’s penitential journey to Canada, the Vatican said that the act reaffirmed the church’s “rejection of the colonizing mentality.”
“The Doctrine of Discovery was the government's way of claiming ownership of any land. And it is very important to recognize that it started with taking our children. This colors the way we see ourselves and how others see us," explains Benjamin Jacuk.
The rule of ten
"In addition, both Canada and the United States still celebrate Discovery Day and Columbus Day. They have actually dreamed up this concept of discovering people. Today's legislation is still based on this. So only if we are not discovered, we can own our land," says the Chief, shaking his head.
Emily Edenshaw also mentions the ten-student rule in Alaska.
In 1998, with oil revenues no longer soaring, the Alaska State Legislature decided that schools with fewer than 10 students would face severe cuts in financing, in many cases causing the school to shut down.
“This forces parents to move or send their kids to larger boarding schools”, says Edenshaw.
Only French and English
Chief Erasmus adds discrimination against indigenous languages in Canada, as all communications from the state are based on the two official languages of French and English.
“In court, you can choose one of those languages, but not our language. Everything is translated into French or English.”
Benjamin Jacuk adds that it is not necessarily the wording of the rules and laws, but the way they are implemented.
The systematic psychological and physical abuse changed the children's identity and it sometimes ended in the most tragic ways.
“The suicide rate among indigenous people is paired with the lack of specific native identity. If you are not connected to your tribe, why even be here?” says Jacuk.
Gunn-Britt Retter, head of the Arctic and environmental unit at the Saami Council of Norway, says that the Saami people of the Nordic countries experienced the same Darwinism.
"It was said that the Saami were not at the same level of development as the Norwegians, and therefore they were sent to boarding schools to be fixed. You start to see yourself as less than others. It is a generational trauma," says Retter.
There was a huge debate about whether we were even human.
She is looking forward to learning more about the history of the indigenous people of the Nordic region when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission publishes its report this summer, followed by Sweden and Finland.
“Then we will know more about what happened."
Chief Erasmus nods in recognition of Retter's story.
"There was a huge debate about whether we were even human. They did all kinds of studies on us to find out that we are actually human. But with a lower status," he notes with a smirk.
It seems unreal in 2023.
Time to heal
The group says it is time to heal. But how do you heal from the eradication of a people? It starts with the truth.
“For me, healing means taking back ownership of the land and being recognized as self-governing," says Benjamin Jacuk.
“Yes, when the state talks about sovereignty for the indigenous people, we can heal," agrees Bill Erasmus.
"And healing is not just to be restored, but to thrive. Today, we know only part of the true story. It has been hidden and forgotten. For us, the first step in healing is to know the full truth. We must know what we need healing from," says Jacuk.
Lost loved ones
Edenshaw says that it is time to normalize healing and turn away from the pain of having loved ones that never made it home.
"In British Columbia, we knew people who died in schools and never came home. And they found hundreds of signs of what they thought were children buried in unmarked graves. Why were the graves unmarked? What happened to them?" asks Chief Bill Erasmus.
Everybody knows of someone that did not make it back.
“In most families, there are names that are never spoken. It is too painful," says Benjamin Jacuk.
That is why they want to shed light on history.
"It is important to bring it to light and recognize those who came back wondering who they really were. It is our responsibility to do this together," Jacuk says passionately.
The boarding school practice started in Alaska in 1879, 12 years after the USA purchased the Arctic state from Russia without consulting the indigenous population.
Maybe that is also where the healing has to start.
"Alaska may be ground zero for all of this. But ground zero can also be the place of healing for indigenous peoples from all over the world," Jacuk concludes.
In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded what happened was "cultural genocide". It identified more than 3,000 children who died from disease due to overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor sanitation or died after being abused or trying to run away.
Most schools had their own cemeteries, and sometimes when children died, their parents were never informed.