In the U.S., there were 367 boarding schools for Indigenous children, 13 in Washington state. Boarding schools were one of the genocidal policies of the U.S. and Canada. Often framed as “kill the Indian, save the child (or man),” the goal was to erase Indigenous cultures and languages. The recent exhumation of more than 700 Native children’s bodies outside an assimilationist boarding school exposed a massacre of cultural genocide.
The image of small caskets carrying home the bodies of Indigenous children who were killed through the genocidal practice of boarding schools is heartbreaking. The uncovering of graves of children reminds us that policies of removal and the cultural genocide of boarding schools is not some distant past.
Uncovering the graves and witnessing the pain and trauma of tribal communities demands all of us in the U.S. and Canada think about what it means to be accountable to the brutality of the founding of our nations.
One of the features of white supremacist culture is the theory of individualism. Individualism demands disconnecting from our ancestors, forgetting the roles they played in history, and misconstruing the benefits we inherited and continually accept from systemic racism.
Even when we get try to connect to our histories, how often do we link the histories we learn to the traumas of our nation? For example, I know that my great-great-grandfather was the mayor of Butte, Montana, and then moved to Yakima, Washington. He was involved in the copper mining industry and took the money he acquired to north Yakima. He bought real estate and ranch lands. This would have occurred at the beginning of Washington’s statehood in 1889.
It leads to the question, Was my family directly displacing, or worse, members of the Yakama Nation? My grandfather’s sister, Kay Smith, worked as a social worker for Catholic Family and Child Services in Yakima and later in Alaska. Did she facilitate removing children from Yakama tribes?
It is also true that, throughout our history, people fought against the brutality of enslavement and manifest destiny. According to Kay’s obituary, through her work as an adoption consultant, she had a “particular interest in assuring that Alaska Native children were adopted by Alaska Native families.” But then again, why were the children separated from their parents in the first place?
The pain of the recovered and returning children is a reminder that we need to dig deeper than Peggy McIntosh’s discussion of the privilege backpack. It is time for us to understand our own histories, to explore our direct connections to historical trauma. Perhaps when we understand our own histories, we will be more invested in reconciliation.
Jill Mullins is an intersectional feminist, attorney, activist and much more. She has written for NW Lawyer, King County Bar News and LGBTQ+ outlets.
Read more of the Aug. 18-24, 2021 issue.