A new generation of Native Americans is awakening in Indian boarding schools

Opinion. Last year, about a week after news broke of the buried remains of 215 innocent school children at the industrial boarding school in Kamloops, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, I reported on a gathering in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The crowd of approximately 200 people included many members of our local Native American community. Some proudly carried their tribal flags, a man waved the flag of the American Indian Movement and others carried homemade signs. A sign read, “Residential Genocide—215 Indigenous Children Murdered!”

During the month of June, more stories emerged from Canada about additional graves that had been discovered at other closed residential schools. On the last Saturday of the month, I participated in a Talking Circle, which provided a safe space for the Indigenous community to speak openly about the revelations and share their feelings about the terrible truths associated with residential schools.

More than a dozen people at the talking circle – mostly young Indigenous women – expressed their pain and anger at the horrific treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools. Many wept openly as they spoke of how they felt and how they were coping with the news of Indigenous children who died so far from their family home. One woman said the news caused her to break out with dry breakouts.

During the talking circle, it occurred to me that I was witnessing the awakening of a new generation. I realized that some may have had a cursory knowledge of residential schools, but now they were faced with a full picture of this horrific and dark chapter in our native history.

Last month, this image became more detailed with the publication of the report on the Indian boarding schools of the Ministry of the Interior. As our newsroom discussed the report and the intergenerational impact of residential schools on Indigenous communities, two of our youngest staff members joined the conversation. After hearing what they had to say, we decided to interview these two bright young Gen-Z women for our weekly Native Bidaské show to share with our viewers.

Kristen Lilya (Ojibwe) and Neely Bardwell (Odawa) are two young Anishinaabe kwewok (women) who bring great talent and a youthful perspective to our Aboriginal News Agency.

Lilya, a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, is a marketing and sponsorship representative for Native News Online’s parent company, Indian Country Media. She also produces our live streams.

Bardwell, a descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian, started as an intern at Native News Online in the summer of 2021 and is now a freelance writer and policy researcher.

During Friday’s episode, Lilya and Bardwell expressed how heartbroken they were last year when the Kamloops story broke.

For Lilya, who said she learned a bit about boarding schools when she was growing up on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation, the discovery of Kamloops prompted her to ask her grandmother about their family history with Indian boarding schools.

“I came home and asked my grandmother if she knew anything about Indian boarding schools,” said Lilya. “She told me last year that her siblings, who were several years older than her, were attending boarding schools in South Dakota. They went to Flandreau. But that was a new realization. for me because I didn’t know that before,” Lilya said.

Bardwell remembers having grown up in a house where she heard her mother, a former member of the tribal council, talking about Indian boarding schools. But it was only during her second year at Michigan State University that she heard of Indian boarding schools in an educational setting.

So she knew some of the history of boarding schools before the Kamloops announcement.

“I think the discovery (of Kamloops) was the first time that non-Natives finally started to realize the history of the residential school and the trauma,” Bardwell said. “And I honestly think that discovery kind of sparked this bigger movement of (people) finally starting to recognize the trauma and the pain that these boarding schools have caused and continue to cause in our communities.”

Bardwell talked about visiting her grandmother this year during spring break and learning something even her mother didn’t know: that her grandmother’s parents had attended residential schools.

“She told me that her parents actually went to boarding schools. And so that was new information. And it was very interesting to hear that the experience of boarding school is not as disconnected as we thought, “said Bardwell.

Lilya and Bardwell both explained how much about Indian boarding schools is a way to heal.

Bardwell said she knew Native Americans were resilient, but her generation had to face the truths of boarding schools to help the community heal.

“For Gen Z, my generation, we’re the future, right? And so for me, that also means a cycle breaker…breaking the cycle of trauma that boarding schools (caused), breaking that cycle historical and intergenerational trauma,” Bardwell said.

Lilya says it’s hard to take in all the lessons of the residential school system at this point, but she hopes her generation can play a part in helping Indigenous families and communities heal.

“I see it as a staircase,” says Lilya, “and in my eyes, we’re maybe the second or third step and we still have the whole staircase to climb. I hope that with our generation – the Z generation – we can take a few more steps in the right direction.

WATCH the episode here:

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About the Author

Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertE-mail: This email address is protected from spam. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded the 2021 Native Media Award Best Column for the Print/Online Category by the Native American Journalists Association. He sits on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected]


Nohemi M. Moore