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'It’s not just Canada': Tribal members hold vigil in response to discovery of unmarked graves

Flowers, teddy bears, and candles honor lost lives of children
Tribal members hold vigil in response to findings of unmarked graves
Posted at 3:21 PM, Jul 04, 2021
and last updated 2022-02-14 19:24:29-05

ST. IGNATIUS — In only a couple of months, upwards of 1,000 unmarked graves of children have been discovered at former Canadian residential schools, sparking fresh outrage over the country's treatment of Indigenous peoples. In the United States, there’s a mirrored American history of residential schools.

Located on the Flathead Reservation, St. Ignatius is a small Montana town, but it shares that history.

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, Native American children attended boarding schools that were intended to assimilate them into western culture. The schools were mostly led by religious institutions with funding from the federal government. One operated as the St. Ignatius Mission School.

Patrick Matt, Jr. works as the DHRD-Familes First Program Director for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes and spoke with MTN News about his perspective. His parents are boarding school survivors.

“My late father and my late mother both attended reservation boarding schools, the Ursuline school system here on the Flathead Reservation," Matt said.

Matt said the St. Ignatius Mission history stems from a time before the Hellgate Treaty of 1855.

“I myself am part of a legacy of a people who had invited a teacher to come teach the great black book onto the Reservation in our homelands of the Salish and Pend d'Oreille people, and our elders, we have a lot of people of faith, throughout the generations,” he explained.

Patrick Matt, Jr.
Patrick Matt, Jr.

Matt runs a community Facebook page for CSKT members and has tapped into some of the community response to news surrounding the boarding school era.

“Well, what I've noticed recently, is there's a lot of fresh rage and anger, justifiably, you know, those of us that have had parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents that have attended the boarding school system, we've heard stories, all our lives. And, you know, some are not as bad as others and some of the stories are the stories that you almost whisper,” Matt said.

Matt told MTN News there are community questions about children and babies that may have never returned from their time at the Ursuline Academy - a school with a documented history of physical and sexual abuse.

“Although my faith is strong, I can identify with the fresh anger, with the fresh rage. I am a student of history. I know that people came with a cross in one hand and another cross in the other,” Matt said.

But like whispered stories, this history of the residential schools in America and the legacy of trauma it left behind on Native communities is often faint.

“What needs to happen is a very powerful, powerful reconciliation in America,” Matt said, “We need to hear from the Governor, we need to hear from the Lieutenant Governor, we need to hear from Congress and we need to hear from the American president. Where are we in this, can we recognize this? People need to be heard, people need to be felt, people need to be spoken to, and so this is that time. The time is now.”

A vigil Saturday was held to honor survivors of boarding schools and remember lost children. To organizer Karissa Trahan-Sorrell, healing comes with seeking answers.

“I would love if we had our own investigation here. So, that's another reason doing this was to, you know, bring more awareness to what's going on here and hopefully to, you know, apply pressure to the government to do something about it because they're definitely here too, it's not just Canada,” Trahan-Sorrell said.

Karissa Trahan-Sorrell
Karissa Trahan-Sorrell

With permission from the St. Ignatius Mission Church, dozens gathered with flowers, stuffed teddy bears, and candles to mourn for the children that never came home.

“People should educate themselves because you either live on a reservation or you're very near to a reservation. So this is your local history as well," Trahan-Sorrell said, explaining that as a descendant of a residential school survivor the issue hits home on multiple levels, but especially as a mother.

“I can comfort her [my daughter] and I can hold her and let her know that everything's going to be okay, but all of the babies and children at the boarding schools didn't have that. They didn't have anybody to comfort them, whether they were crying out of a pain or sickness or loneliness, homesickness, or they were dying. You know, I just feel like everybody can relate to that in some form, you know, they're just children at the end of the day,” Trahan-Sorrell said.

And for those unaffected by the recent discoveries, organizers stressed sensitivity.

“This is still like a very close and painful subject for people that are alive today, so it's not a really old issue. It's a very recent, current issue,” Trahan-Sorrell said.

Organizers at the vigil emphasized the need to heal from the past and the desire for acknowledgment from both the government and religious institutions about what happened at residential boarding schools. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition estimates there were over 350 functioning in the United States.

The U.S. is ramping up response after the discovery of unmarked graves in Canada. On June 22, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to formally investigate available historical records with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites.

Those experiencing emotional or psychological distress over the recent discoveries can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a crisis counselor.