‘It is our story as well’: After Kamloops, a Fairbanks vigil to mourn and raise awareness of boarding school trauma

Two hundred and fifteen bandanas, one for each of the Native children whose bodies were found buried on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia, are hung from the Chena River footbridge in Fairbanks. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

A gathering was held in Fairbanks on June 13 to mourn and raise awareness about historic abuse, neglect and forced assimilation of Native children at government- and church-run residential schools in the United States and Canada. The Fairbanks event, and others like it in both countries, follows the discovery last month of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at a residential school in British Columbia, which closed in the late 1970s.

The event began with the tying of 215 orange bandanas to a clothesline, which was then strung along a footbridge over the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. It was a symbolic gesture of acknowledgement and remembrance of the children found dead at the residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Event organizer Sasha Housley addressed the gathering, emphasizing the generations of pain and loss residential schools have caused Native people in Canada and the United States.

“We acknowledge you,” she said. “He help carry your pain, we are your hope. We sing for you the songs you couldn’t sing at school. We will not forget your story or your history, for it is our story as well.”

Housley says her father was a boarding school survivor in Alaska, and although he never talked about his experience, she’s educated herself on residential schools.

“So when I found out the 215 children had been discovered in unmarked graves, it impacted me in a way I didn’t expect — well, deeper than I expected,” she said. “And I wanted to do something in memory of the children and to spread awareness.”

There were also songs, prayers, dancing and speakers, including Athabascan elder Fred John of Delta Junction. John attended residential schools in both Alaska and the Lower 48, including the Haskell Institute in Kansas, where he says many Native children died.

“Graveyard with tombstones, you know. And there were kids that died from 1884 at Haskell Institute,” John said. “Then one year my wife and I went to Carlisle Indian School, the first Indian boarding school that was made in the United States, and we visited the graves there — big graveyard, all Native kids from five years, four years on up. From all across the United States.”

John says his siblings also went to residential schools, and their experiences led to tragic outcomes.

“I had two sisters that, I’ll say, drank themselves to death. And all of them became alcoholic as a result of the boarding school,” he said.

Shirley May Holmberg has a background in behavioral health. She says she knows many people who were traumatized at residential schools.

“It was government’s effort to ‘take the savage out of the Indian,'” she said. “I have friends and family who have been affected by boarding schools. They experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse.”

Natasha Singh, with Tanana Chiefs Conference, said the only way to bring justice is to tell the stories of what happened at residential schools and pointed to the resilience of Native people to systematic oppression.

“The government sought to destroy our people though violence and genocide and cultural genocide,” she said. “It’s a beautiful day today because they failed, and we continue to thrive.”

The 215 bandanas, symbolic of the residential school children who died in British Columbia, will remain along the Chena River footbridge until the solstice, a span of 215 hours.

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