Native activists call for awareness to abuses at Native boarding schools during Downtown Phoenix event

Dozens of people took part in a peaceful stand-in at Chase Field on the morning of July 18 to bring awareness to the thousands of children who died in residential boarding schools that were meant to help them fit in with American and Canadian societies.

Related: Remains of 215 children found at Indigenous school in Canada

"Our children were taken away from the parents and put into residential schools to kill the Indian in the child, but they killed the child altogether, and they never returned," said Watauna Velarde.

Many Native children were forced to attend boarding schools in U.S., Canada

Velarde and dozens of others at the event say more than 1,000 bodies of Native children have been found buried at several Canadian schools.

According to a 2021 report by Canadian public broadcaster CBC, more than 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools from the 1870s to 1997, and an organization examining residential schools in Canada have identified or otherwise obtained information on more than 4,100 children who died while attending such schools.

In the U.S., the Associated Press reported on June 22 that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, has announced an investigation into the federal government's past oversight of Native American boarding schools, and work to "uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences" of policies that over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities.

"That’s why we’re here, because we need to bring awareness to our schools here in the U.S.," said Velarde. "We want our babies home."

Schools focused on assimilation of Natives

According to the AP, starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

"Our (dorm) matron, she would spank us real hard on the rear, put us over this old-fashioned laundry tub, and just spank the hell out of us. It got to the point where it didn’t bother us, so she would use her high heels. She would start slapping your face, hitting us until we cried. We learned to start crying so she would stop. Someday I’d like to confront her and talk to her about what she did to us," said Ethel Sales, a Navajo who attended a Christian Reformed mission school in New Mexico, in an Associated Press article published in 1999.

Some students recalled being beaten for speaking their native languages.

"Honestly, a lot of my blood line must have been lost when the genocide occurred, and not a lot of people are aware of that," said Chanda Beatty.

Native activists call for search of U.S. boarding school sites

While remains that have been unearthed so far were in Canada, those at Chase Field say there are hundreds of other similar residential boarding schools in the U.S. that also need to be searched.

Velarde says she her mom was adopted by a white family, and she herself grew up never fully knowing about her culture. Now that she’s educated herself, she says she is on a mission to to educate others about the culture, the history, and the wrongs that were committed against her people.

"I want them to know our history, and that we are here for a reason and nobody has the right to tell us otherwise," said Velarde.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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