As the remains of more and more Indigenous children are unearthed in Canada and the prospect of a similar effort looms larger in the United States, a Grand Forks woman is planning a small memorial for children who died at boarding schools, the widespread institutions that aimed to forcibly assimilate American Indian children.
Courtney Davis Souvannasacd, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and an ardent proponent of Grand Forks' inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day commemoration in 2019, is organizing a vigil for boarding school victims that’s scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 30, at the obelisk flood memorial near downtown Grand Forks.
“It’s not even a generation removed from me, personally,” Davis Souvannasacd said. Her mother and grandmother were each enrolled at a series of the schools throughout North Dakota and South Dakota.
The schools were set up throughout North America. At them, thousands of American Indian children were forcibly assimilated by church or government workers. Col. Richard Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn. believed in figuratively killing the “Indian” part of American Indians so only the person themselves remained. Pratt’s school became a model for others throughout the country.
Horror stories about the schools, some closely guarded, abound: staff beating children who spoke a Native language or expressed part of their culture, poor living conditions, sexual assaults and more.
In Canada this year, scores of bodies have been found at boarding schools there. Prompted by those discoveries, Deb Haaland, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the first American Indian to hold a spot in a presidential cabinet, announced last month a similar investigation of boarding schools in this country that will focus on finding student burial sites and identifying the bodies there and their tribal affiliations.
“The Interior Department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a news release. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
In a similar vein, Davis Souvannasacd said she wanted to put together the Grand Forks vigil after she heard about the troubling discoveries in Canada. The vigil she’s planning is informal, but it’s nonetheless part of a larger-scale effort to get Indigenous history taught more broadly in North Dakota schools and get the ball rolling on resources for present-day American Indians to cope with whatever the U.S. investigation into boarding schools uncovers.
A list of boarding schools compiled for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, counts 12 such schools in North Dakota, 15 in Minnesota and 25 in South Dakota.
“Largely, boarding schools aren’t talked about,” Souvannasacd said. “It needs to be talked about.”