Native Americans in North Dakota grapple with the dark history of residential schools on Memorial Day – InForum

FORT TOTTEN, ND — The message written on Denise Lajimodière’s bright orange shirt is brief and direct: “Federal Indian residential schools were genocide.

It’s a sentiment the author and former professor at North Dakota State University has believed in for many years, but it’s only recently that the dark history of Native American boarding schools has been more widely acknowledged — that which Lajimodiere calls “America’s best-kept secret.”

Lajimodiere was among about 50 people who gathered outside the Fort Totten State Historic Site on Friday, Sept. 30, to observe a day of memorial for Native American children who attended boarding schools aimed at stripping them of their culture, language and family ties. .

The second annual Every Child Matters event held on the Spirit Lake reservation aligned with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which Canadian activists established in 2013 to raise awareness of the legacy boarding schools in the country.

The Canadian government declared September 30 a federal holiday last year after an anthropologist announced that she had found unmarked graves belonging to possibly 200 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

The disturbing discovery in Kamloops in May 2021 has caused the United States to begin to heed its own history of government-sponsored forced assimilation of Native Americans. Events like Fort Totten grew out of that heightened attention, Lajimodiere said.

At least 13 Native American boarding schools existed in North Dakota, including a large federally run institution in Fort Totten, according to Lajimodiere’s research.

The Spirit Lake Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the State Historical Society of North Dakota recently agreed to partner in a search for the remains of children around the former Fort Totten Indian Industrial School.

An aerial photograph from the mid-1950s shows Fort Totten.

Photo by North Dakota State Historical Society

The Friday gathering included prayers, storytelling and a “healing fire” that burned from sunrise to sunset. Organizers from the Spirit Lake chapter of Family and Child Education handed out orange t-shirts, a reference to the event’s Canadian roots.

Speakers, including Lajimodiere and North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, spoke to attendees about their personal and family ties to boarding schools.

Lajimodiere, a registered member of Turtle Mountain, has spent years documenting the experiences of residential school survivors. Her father, grandfather, and other family members attended Fort Totten, which she calls a “hellish boarding school.”

“It’s definitely a day of remembrance for me personally – remembering the hell they went through here,” Lajimodiere said.

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Author and scholar Denise Lajimodiere speaks during a Native American boarding school history awareness event in Fort Totten, ND on Friday, September 30, 2022.

Chris Flynn / The Forum

Previous Forum News Service reports and Lajimodiere’s findings revealed that the Fort Totten school, which operated from 1891 to 1959, had a culture of systemic child abuse and neglect.

Lajimodière said his father witnessed classmates die from disease, physical abuse, starvation, and loneliness (“stunted growth”).

“It was a form of genocide, in addition to cultural genocide,” Lajimodière said.

Buffalo, a registered member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said she had always known her mother had attended boarding school in Wahpeton, but it was not until the discovery in Kamloops last year that her mother began sharing details of the punishments and cruelty she suffered at the institution.

School administrators made Buffalo’s mother kneel on a broomstick for speaking her native language, lawmakers said. The young boys had their hair cut short against their will, she added.

Those who survived boarding schools often had their life trajectories shortened by the experience, and the scars linger in their families for generations later, said Buffalo, who serves on the National Native American Boarding School’s board of trustees. Healing Coalition.

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Orange shirts reading “Every Child Matters” sit on a table during an event to raise awareness of the history of Native American boarding schools in Fort Totten, ND on Friday, September 30, 2022.

Chris Flynn / The Forum

Many boarding school survivors choose to keep their childhood experiences bottled up to avoid traumatizing younger generations, but events like Fort Totten “let people know that it’s okay to share their own stories,” he said. Buffalo in tears. This public acknowledgment can help spark a healing process, she said.

Spirit Lake Tribe Chairman Doug Yankton briefed attendees on the tribe’s efforts to repatriate the remains of a boy named Edward Upright, who died and was buried at the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

The US military, which maintains Carlisle Cemetery, has pledged to facilitate the return of Upright’s remains to the Spirit Lake Reservation next year.

A group of Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux children arrived at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in November 1879. Edward Upright, who died and was buried at the school, is pictured in the middle.

Glass plate photo taken by John Choate in 1879 and published online by the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

North Dakota tribal leaders believe the future will bring more repatriations as researchers dig into former boarding school sites.

Event organizer Nancy Robertson said she hopes shining a light on the history of boarding schools will help the tribes “find all the missing children”.

Spirit Lake member Marva Tiyawakanhdi, who opened the gathering with a Dakota-language prayer, said the event can serve as a “wake-up call to the tragedies and traumas” endured by tribal elders and those who have passed away. But Tiyawakanhdi said remembering residential school survivors also celebrates her people’s resilience in the face of persecution.

“One of the things we always say since we’ve been here is because one of them did it, we did it,” Tiyawakanhdi said. “If you see it that way, it’s kind of an honor for them.”

Nohemi M. Moore