[TW: boarding/residential schools; violence against Indigenous peoples/children]
Note on terminology: “Indigenous” is used throughout this piece to encompass First Nations, Native American, Black Native, Métis and Inuit communities
My grief is a mountain I must chisel into a molehill in order to write these words. There are others of my kin whose grief is even more mountainous than my own. I must gather what few words I have left to speak alongside those who have no words left to give at all.
Since May 28th of this year, Indigenous peoples across the US and Canada have been mourning the rediscovery of the unmarked graves of 215 missing Secwepemc children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. I’m tempted to say that in some ways, it would be easier on our communities if unmarked mass graves of Native children came as a surprise, a rarity in our peoples’ lives. Unfortunately, this news doesn’t come as a surprise. This is confirmation of how efficiently colonial states can hide the cost of assuming their authority on these lands. If you, my reader, are unfamiliar with the horrors of ‘Indian’ residential schools, or boarding schools as they’re known in the US, I will link an article for introductory reading. Not only is this subject very traumatizing for Indigenous peoples,, to have to educate non-natives on, but laying out its history is also too much of a distraction from the depths I hope to reach here. However, this legacy is not distant, in time nor place. Every Indigenous person I know, including myself, has kin who survived boarding schools, and memories of those who did not. Even here in Kentucky, the Choctaw Indian Academy at Great Crossings, still sours the ground it sits on.
“Kill the Indian, save the man,” as Capt. Richard H. Pratt so proudly proclaimed, is the easiest summary of the intention and effect of boarding schools— a genocide not only of the mind, but also genocide of the body. The body remembers individual trauma, it encodes these violent violations of our being into our own DNA until the children we bring into this world inherit the crimes committed against our kin. As the intergenerational effects of trauma begin to be addressed within modern psychological circles, I’m praying that our communities can construct our own ways to mother our grief. To be born Indigenous is to be born grieving memories you only recall in dreams and stories. Some days, I have no answers to these plights, only a voice calling for justice.
In the light of this boarding school wound being reopened and salted from all angles, I sit, still untying the ways silence has scarred our collective healing. Tucked between the waves of justifiable anger, loss, and untranslatable grief is a sea of Two Spirit, trans and Indigiqueer voices that call for a reconfiguration of memory and narrative. These are the voices I hope to put into the core of this piece.
Boarding schools prided themselves on their unwavering commitment to enforcing White, Christian values onto the vulnerable minds of Indigenous children; to create a new generation of our kin that could parrot and accept White society’s fondness for hierarchies, capitalistic greed, environmental degradation, and religious subservience. These are all readily addressed in both Indigenous activist and non-native accomplice circles, but the boarding-school hydra has many heads, and it’s high time we sever its ugly face of cisheterosexism.
There can no longer be any denial that it was between the walls of boarding schools that countless Indigenous youth were first told that their bodies were unclean. The church’s fixation on White supremacy did not limit itself to scrubbing relentlessly away at Native children’s skin. The same voice that likened Indigenous skin to dirt, in the same breath, proclaimed that Good Men kept their hair short, were the masters of the land and of women. Good Men swallowed their tears and their compassion to fill their voices with anger and domination. These were the voices that groomed young Indigenous girls to subservience; that it was better to be seen and not heard, that their value lied in finding a husband, that they had no place in the world but beside a man.
Indigenous children of all genders were brutalized with the ideology that there were only two opposing genders; the body was a shameful, sinful thing to be covered and betrayed; sensuality and sexuality were stripped of pleasure, caged by reproductive subservience. I grieve for all the children who were disconnected from the beauty of their own bodies by colonial shame. We were not responsible for the contrived, mutilated understandings of gender and sexuality that Europe carried to these shores. It is not our burden to bear.
Asegi jiyelv, my Strange body, carries the grief handed to me by those survivors of boarding schools whose fear and shame ripple through our communities. The complex webs woven in our minds and bodies will be unwoven, slowly, but surely, by the circles of care we create for ourselves. That conversation is one for Indian Country to carry out autonomously, and not one for me to attempt to flesh out in my own musings. Here, I sit, navigating my own waters of anger, pain, and healing as I picture the countless faces of Native kin who are owed justice.
I cannot, and will not, retroactively ascribe gender and sexual identities to youth and adults alike whom I do not know. I will, however, call for accountability and reparations for the damage the colonial state has enacted, and continuously enacts, on the bodies of Two Spirit, trans, queer, and gender-diverse Indigenous kin of the past, present and future. Up until 1996, boarding schools still isolated Indigenous children from their communities. This is not a distant legacy of colonialism. It is an ongoing trauma that still affects the daily lives of Indigenous peoples across the US and Canada. Survivors must still prove their abuse in courts of law in search of any shred of reparations for themselves and their communities. It was the direct intent of colonial states and the church alike to do this harm to Indigenous communities, and it is their responsibility to atone for their crimes. Apologies without reparations are not going to bring the justice Indigenous peoples deserve.
Non-native readers, do not take this piece as a one-off, trauma porn reading of the week. Do not let these words pass through you and fade into a memory of Settler guilt. This is not your pain to own. This is your call to action, to justice, to accountability. I have done the work of navigating this grief and compiling tangible ways of moving forward below, and now it is your turn to do the work necessary for holding colonial institutions accountable for their ongoing crimes against humanity. To combat queer and transphobia, to combat heterosexism, is to destroy settler colonialism in all its manifestations.
Steps for moving forward across the US and Canada:
Indian Residential School Survivors Society (1-800-721-0066)
And as always: develop respectful, meaningful relationships with Indigenous people. Listen to the voices of our community members and share their demands. Actively seek out settler colonial patterns in your own life and mind, and work to undo them.