Our shameful history

Given that all those bodies of dead children were discovered in a Canadian boarding school for First Nations people, and that my own university was initially founded as an Indian Residential Boarding School, I thought it appropriate to bring up a memo sent out by our chancellor.

The recent news of the discovery of the remains of 215 First Nations children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia (Canada) was horrifying and saddening. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc tribal experts discovered the graves as part of a Canada-wide effort to find the graves of all First Nations children who died while attending Indian residential schools and whose bodies were not returned to their parents and their communities. To date, over 4,000 children have been identified as having died after separation from their parents in schools across Canada.

This horrific discovery only highlights the need for transparency on the United States’ own history with what were often called Indian Residential Boarding Schools. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has identified 15 American Indian boarding schools that operated in Minnesota and 367 schools across the U.S. These institutions were part of federal policies that separated children from their families and attempted to eliminate Native languages and cultures, with intergenerational impacts still felt across Indian Country.

One such school was established by the Sisters of Mercy Order in 1887 in Morris. As you know from our own history, this site went through several transitions, ultimately becoming the University of Minnesota Morris in 1960.

In the summer of 2018, archival research conducted by a then-Morris student and faculty mentor suggested that at least three, and possibly as many as seven, Indian children who died at the boarding school in the late 1800s and early 1900s may have been interned in a cemetery plot on or near the present day Morris campus. Generally, the deceased children’s remains were returned to their parents, and indeed documentation exists for several such situations, but in this case no documentation has been discovered or located to show the disposition of the remains of the children in question.

Research by Morris faculty and by students, following up on the original archival research, revealed no specific evidence of a cemetery for the burial of children who died while at the School. However, we can also not say with certainty that no such cemetery existed. What we do know is that we have been unable to determine where the cemetery may have been located and what ultimately was the disposition of any individuals buried there.

In April 2019, with the guidance of UMN Morris’s American Indian Advisory Committee and Dakota and Anishinaabe elders, UMN Morris hosted a ceremonial gathering to inaugurate an era of truth telling, understanding, and healing regarding the history of this land. It was a first step in remembering the children, and their families and communities that have been negatively impacted by the boarding school on this site and all those across Minnesota and our nation. The campus is indebted to the late Mr. Danny Seaboy of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe who led that gathering “remembering the children that were here” and the Woapipiyapi ceremony “to fix it so that the people are happier.”

In November 2019, Mr. Seaboy again led the campus and tribal leaders in a ceremony to bring support to University of Minnesota Morris students, children, and families of the boarding school era, and all those carrying intergenerational trauma. In November 2020, Anishinaabe cultural and spiritual advisors, Mr. Darrell Kingbird Sr., citizen of the Red Lake Nation, and Mr. Naabekwa Adrian Liberty, citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, led the second annual ceremonial gathering to support the UMN Morris Native American community and our campus for understanding, healing, resiliency, and strength. Auntie in Residence, Tara Mason, a citizen of the White Earth Nation, provided cultural teachings and supported the ceremonies. We appreciate all who participated whether safely in person, virtually, or individually in quiet and heartfelt ways as we came together as a community. We take to heart Naabekwa’s encouragement to continue in our collective efforts of understanding and making our campus a space of healing and positivity.

The campus has joined the National Native American Boarding School Coalition to further these efforts. We value their critical work in truth telling, understanding, and fostering healing from these heartbreaking traumas and losses.

I wanted to acknowledge the tremendous insights and guidance we have received from the elders who have worked with all of us to better understand and remember our past here on the Morris campus. Their work, and ours, will never be done. Healing is not a point in time; it is a journey, and I will update you further, as will incoming Acting Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen, with any new information as it becomes available.

The first leader of the Sisters of Mercy in Morris was Mary Joseph Lynch, who at least took the liberal position of forbidding corporal punishment, but at the same time the children often tried to escape, which tells you it wasn’t a desirable place for them to be. Just the idea of forcibly separating children from their parents is appalling. Morris was the largest Indian boarding school in Minnesota.

Also appalling is the knowledge that half a dozen children died here, and records are so poor that we don’t know the precise number, their names, or where they were buried. There is no justifiable excuse for what was a genocidal action against the native people of this land. All we can do is try to make amends for what our ancestors did, and correct the ongoing discrimination against Indians in the US.


  1. PaulBC says

    The first leader of the Sisters of Mercy in Morris was Mary Joseph Lynch, who at least took the liberal position of forbidding corporal punishment.

    That is surprising. I would have expected corporal punishment to be the norm at the time whether the students were Native American or white. In fact, I have trouble believing it, or at least I’d like to see how she defined corporal punishment.

    My older siblings remember nuns hitting kids with rulers at a suburban Catholic school as late as the 60s. I escaped this, but only by a few years, and there were definitely a few “scary” older nuns and lay teachers who would have liked to be allowed to.

  2. stroppy says

    For those who think that American abuses of minorities are ancient history and that inconvenient people should just “get over it.”

    “It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.”
    1978! wtf

    “Because of a need for uniform federal standards, resulting from the continuous high rate of American Indian youth removed from their homes and communities, some state courts’ inappropriate and harmful interpretations of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and other factors, the Department of Interior promulgated ICWA regulations in 2016.”
    2016! wtf

    “WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that tribal police may detain non-Native Americans on highways running through their reservations, overturning an appeals court that said such powers were out of bounds absent an “apparent” crime.”
    2 days ago! wtf
    (Consider that non-native-americans have been using reservations as stalking grounds for predatory behavior.)

  3. weylguy says

    When I visited the Memorial to Murdered European Jews in Berlin Germany, I was impressed with how that country’s citizens had come to grips with its horrific past. More recently, Canada is doing the same with its past treatment of the First Nations peoples.

    Your article is important because it brings up the long ignored issue of America’s barbaric treatment of its own native peoples, its history of slavery and Jim Crow and its ongoing mistreatment of many other minorities. But unlike Canada, America did not recently discover these acts — it has known about them for many generations of Americans. I hope this tragic news from British Columbia will have a sobering impact on America, but I’m not optimistic. I can almost hear the Republicans saying “Forget about it.”

  4. Pascalle says

    Maybe better to correct your last sentence to “native american people” it’s confusing because when people read indian most now think Immigrants from India.

  5. R. L. Foster says

    @5 Pascalle — That may be the case, but as someone who is 1/4 Indian on my father’s side, I’d like to clarify something. Many natives are reverting to calling themselves Indian for the simple reason that being called Native American makes them/us seem like just another immigrant group. Think Italian American or Italian American or African American. Indians have been here for at 12,000 years (and probably longer if recent discoveries can be believed.) Which is far longer than any extant European nation can claim. None of the present European languages were in existence 12,000 years ago. And, as we all know the USA is a mere two centuries old. So, as erroneous and frustrating as the Indian label is, it takes the American part out of the equation. It isn’t as though the indigenous peoples were waiting all those millennia for an identity. (The Indians of the subcontinent are just going to have to learn to share their name.)

  6. chrislawson says

    We have the same problem in Australia: there is an abject refusal to acknowledge the dark side of our history.

    The tactic is to deny, deny, deny (you know the drill: publishing new evidence = “historical revisionism” even when the evidence only strengthens what we already knew). And when it’s impossible to deny then act like invasion and genocide was just a small part of a regrettable deep past that is either politically divisive or outright unpatriotic to mention. It’s especially important to derail any discussion of what we could do now to improve the ongoing dislocation and oppression. Even purely symbolic gestures like moving the date of Australia Day so it doesn’t represent the first colonial landing are resisted belligerently.

    The problem is more severe and overt in conservative circles, but even in middle and left politics it’s pretty rampant. I suspect this is true in all colonial nations.

  7. TGAP Dad says

    I’m annoyed that a university chancellor – someone undoubtedly smarter and more educated than I – does not know the difference between “interned” and “interred.” I’m also annoyed that my brain locked in on that one innocuous error in the face of the particular subject and events disclosed.

  8. numerobis says

    stroppy: the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. Kids my age went there (and I know one, though he was a day student).

    weylguy: we’re learning about our shameful history kicking and screaming. But yes, at least it’s starting to come out.

  9. numerobis says

    And “our history” also includes the case of Joyce Echaquan, who rather than getting medical help at hospital got a round of verbal abuse from the nurses until she died, untreated. Ancient history of September last month.

  10. canadiansteve says

    @4 weylguy

    unlike Canada, America did not recently discover these acts — it has known about them for many generations of Americans

    Canada did know about these acts for many years now. Atrocities such as this have been reported by survivors of these schools to authorities (who did their best to ignore these reports) and anyone who would listen. The evidence is being brought forward through improved technologies.
    Canadians can be quite smug about our past, but our history is very similar to other colonial nations. Extirpation, cultural genocide, and widespread horrific treatment of indigenous peoples was the norm, and it’s still recent history – the survivors are still alive today. The generational effects will continue for many years.
    While our systems seem to keep our worst instincts in check better than in the USA (helping us to feel smug) there is lots of evidence that Canadians are plenty racist and exhibit this in many ways.
    We are still figuring out how to make baby steps forward. We are a long way from figuring out what an equitable future might look like.

  11. susans says

    @#5, I am married to a member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, people forced by the U.S. government to migrate from their ancestral homes to Oklahoma; he and his family call themselves American Indians.

    My husband’s grandmother was compelled to attend a boarding school run by Quakers in Oklahoma. To the end of her life, she was a bitter, angry woman who could never forget the misery of those days. That anger included a hatred of the classical music the students had to listen to; their traditional music was forbidden.

  12. M'thew says

    Re. the discussion about Indians vs. Native Americans (and other terms)

    Cf. this article in the Guardian, in which Sacheen Littlefeather describes the whole hullabaloo with accepting the Oscar for Marlon Brando. She regularly speaks of “Indians”, while the reporter who did the interview speaks of “Native Americans”. To me it tastes a bit like the whole “African-American” vs. “N-word” thing – what do the people involved call themselves, and what is appropriate for others (mostly white people) to call them. Would it be appropriate for me, as a white person, to refer to Sacheen Littlefeather as an “Indian”?

    Otherwise the article is also definitely worth reading.

  13. says

    I think most Canadians have been aware of the residential schools for some time (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report back in 2015) but I think the true horrors of the system have not entered the general consciousness until now. To be honest, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve given much thought to the matter myself, after having seen the movie “Indian Horse” and, most recently, reading Joe Sacco’s book “Paying the Land”.

    None of the European powers have a good record in their treatment of indigenous peoples. This was brought to mind recently after re-watching the Australian movie “Rabbit-proof Fence”; the government policies concerning Australian Aboriginals were not a lot different from those concerning Canadian First Nations. However, when I first saw the film back in 2002, I didn’t see the parallels between Australia and my own country.

  14. says

    Calling a Residential School a “boarding school for First Nations people” is like calling Boko Haram abductions a “matchmaking service for single women.”

  15. says

    How sad to come across these deplorable events of which I, as a foreigner, only had a vague notion. Thanks for bringing up a nonetheless interesting topic!

  16. PaulBC says

    Halcyon Dayz, FCD@17 Can you elaborate? I am not disagreeing, just curious who you mean. Also, the term “indigenous” is more appropriate than “native” though I accept the way “Native American” is used. But I am a “native” Pennsylvanian, born in the Philly suburbs, and could probably get away with saying it in the appropriate context, though I’m of European ancestry.

    I suppose we won’t find a lost tribe of Vikings anywhere in Canada. How far back do you have to go to be indigenous? First to settle the land, or maybe just first in recorded history?

  17. susans says

    @#16, Mr. susan’s grandmother called it a “boarding school” and I’m wondering if you would have corrected her.

  18. lumipuna says

    Re: PaulBC at 19, I’ve tried to understand the exact meaning of “native” vs. “indigenous” from here:


    For indigenous, definitions vary somewhat, but a common strain seems to be that indigenous peoples are minorities in whatever nation state claims them, and often also within their traditional homeland. They are culturally and historically clearly distinct from their state’s dominant population. Modern states may or may not be built around some ethnic nation, but any such ethnic nation isn’t by definition indigenous.

    Indigenous peoples are not always the oldest (known) settlers in (all parts of) their traditional homeland, but crucially, their presence in that area predates colonization, or the arrival of dominant nation-state culture. Subsequently, the colonized people (or their surviving remnants) may have been entirely displaced from their earlier homeland, and may have become more or less “rooted” in some other area.

    AFAIK, native generally refers to any people whose current home area is considered traditional for their ethnic culture, as opposed to people of recent immigrant ancestry. In the US, referring to local indigenous peoples as “native” suggests that all ethnic groups that arrived within last several centuries are immigrant ethnicities. This may be seen as an anti-colonial framing, but it may end up being an empty platitude, if members of the dominant culture consider themselves de facto native (as in simply “American”) in opposition to “immigrants”. Also, the Native American framing may be seen as whitewashing historical and still lingering attempts to exclude natives from the colonial society.

  19. lumipuna says

    Here in Europe, dominant populations of local nation states consider themselves self-evidently “native”, whereas the concept of “indigenous” is not very much known or understood. A common myth is that our ethnic nations have “always” existed and are therefore as “original” as any indigenous people. Often people aren’t aware of cultural and linguistic displacements that happened even within Europe’s written history.

    Some ethnic minorities in Europe may be considered indigenous or borderline indigenous, depending on how much they have been traditionally distinguished and excluded from the dominant cultures. Thus far, only Sami have been commonly recognized as indigenous Europeans. Most of Europe’s ethnic minorities have been fairly closely associated with or de facto part of dominant ethnic cultures, either in their own or the neighboring nation state. Then there are some traditional (native) minorities such as Jews, Roma and Tatars, whose arrival postdates the development of dominant cultures.

  20. PaulBC says


    For indigenous, definitions vary somewhat, but a common strain seems to be that indigenous peoples are minorities in whatever nation state claims them, and often also within their traditional homeland.

    Do you literally mean “minority” or underprivileged? Aren’t black South Africans indigenous? They greatly outnumber white South Africans.

  21. lumipuna says

    It probably depends on who you you ask, edge cases etc. Modern South Africa may not be clearly dominated by either European or Bantu culture, despite the latter being majority and somewhat empowered these days. However, AFAIK Khoisan cultures of southern Africa are generally consider indigenous because they are quite distinct from the Bantu, much fewer in numbers and under threat of displacement/assimilation.