TW: This piece explores the active genocide perpetrated by the settler-colonial nations Canada and the United States, and contains a discussion of child abuse and death. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of his or her Residential school experience: 1-866-925-4419. You can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a crisis counselor. 

The discovery of over 751 unmarked graves in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, in the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School came just weeks after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

The discovery of thousands of remains, mostly children, in Canada is a confirmation of the abuses that First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have been echoing for decades. Indigenous oral histories have consistently reflected the physical, mental, and sexual abuses, forced labor, cultural assimilation and language denial that they experienced at the hands of the settler-nation of Canada, of which residential schools functioned as a tactic of genocide. 

Fred Short sings a song for the indigenous children killed at residential schools at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Calling it a “cultural genocide,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released a document in 2015 shedding light on the impact of residential schools—schools put in place to separate Indigenous children from their families in order to forcibly assimilate them. This was done in the hopes of the Canadian government to eliminate any financial, land-based, or treaty-based obligation to First Nation, Metis and Inuit people, as they would be so deprived of their culture that they were no longer Indigenous. This was part of Canada’s larger “kill the Indian, not the man” assimilative genocidal project. Residential schools were run by religious institutions, primarily Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, funded by grants from the Canadian government.

Over 50 percent of residential schools were run by the Roman Catholic church, with over 80 residential schools in operation by the 1930s. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that in the over 150,000 children who went through the residential school system, thousands of children have been lost. 

Corinna Gould, who is Lisjan Ohlone and co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, speaks at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

These recent discoveries in Saskatchewan and Kamloops are just two cases of residential school investigations, and these unmarked graves are more than just a symbol of cultural genocide committed against First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, but physical genocide as well. Residential schools function as one technique of settler-colonial dispossession, that not only attempt to erase Indigenous identities and cultures from children, but force Judeo-Christian religion and language onto them, resulting in severe abuse and murder if they refused. 

The unmarked gravesites show the attempt to hide this genocide, simply “disappearing” hundreds of children, and refusing to return them to their families. As Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, a child welfare services group for and by the Cowessess people writes: “There are still children to bring home.” 

Community members hold flags at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

The United States residential school histories have been just as complicit in human rights abuses and cultural genocide as Canada’s. In fact, U.S. residential schools set the stage for Canada’s. Called boarding schools, they were also primarily run by the Catholic Church. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has identified over 367 assimilative boarding schools in the U.S. between 1870 to 1970, yet only has only been able to locate 38 percent of their records. 

As the number of boarding schools and their records is still widely unknown, the amount of children that attended, went missing, or died in said schools is deliberately obscured by this lack of access. Andrea Carmen, the Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council, was quoted by NABS: “The fate of the many Indigenous children who never returned home after forced removal by the US to Boarding Schools, including those in the many unmarked graves at former Boarding School sites, remains an ongoing human rights violation under international law.”

Participants at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

There have also been calls to investigate the California Missions, further interrogating the Catholic Churches’ role in the forced assimilation and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Weshoyot Alvitre, a Tongva Los Angeles Basin artist wrote a call out for the California Missions to be held accountable for their genocide. “The USA has the same blood on their hands as Canada. Only difference? They haven’t started to dig,” Alvitre posted on social media on June 24, 2021. “Demand that California Missions be held accountable for genocide. Demand that the Catholic church be held accountable for their crimes. Demand truth in Canada. Demand truth here in the USA.” 

As boarding schools and Missions were both state sanctioned institutions by the Spanish and the United States intent on forcibly assimilating Native folks through language and cultural denial, the Catholic Church has yet to issue a formal apology or take any action to acknowledge it’s role in genocide. 

Loyen Redhawk stands with her daughter at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Redhawk helped to organize the event. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

The legacies of residential schools and boarding schools are a reminder of the larger colonial project that settler-states like the U.S. and Canada employ to continually erase and disenfranchise Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Other examples include, the arresting of water protectors at Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 tar sand pipeline in Minnesota, the desecration of grave sites and ancestors perpetuated by academic institutions, and the consistent denial of land back to Native communities. 

An American Indian Movement flag flies outside of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral at a march and rally entitled “Bring our Children Home” on July 1, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo: Kathryn Styer Martínez

The discovery of these unmarked mass grave sites in Canada and the investigation into boarding schools in the U.S. represent children, with names, with dreams, with families, with stolen futures in the name of genocide. El Tecolote itself, as a Mission-based bilingual newspaper, operates on stolen, unceded Ohlone land, as Ohlone peoples are fighting for their rights to preserve what is left of their sacred grave sites. 

Supporting and standing in solidarity with projects like Save the Shellmounds in West Berkeley, paying your Shummi land tax are all necessary steps to take, because there is no amount of reconciliation and formal “apologies” that can account for the lives stolen by settler-nations.