The discovery of more than 200 children’s remains at an Indigenous residential school in Canada was mourned in Juneau by a group of residents on Monday.
More than a dozen gathered in the driving rain to garnish the front fence of the Juneau Montessori School with flowers and eagle and raven feathers. The school is the former site of the Mayflower School built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1930s, according to the National Park Service.
“There was a heaviness in the air,” said Jamiann Hasselquist, one of those present, in a phone interview. “There was a heaviness in the hearts of all those there today.”
The bodies of the children, some as young as 3, were discovered with a ground penetrating radar, outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the largest of its kind in Canada.
“It would be comparable to Carlisle Indian (Industrial) School in Pennsylvania, or even closer, to the Sheldon Jackson School,” Hasselquist said. “It’s a dark history. For these children to come to light, it brings up a lot of the pain, but there’s also going to be healing from this. The children will be able to return home.”
Residential schools were intended to forcibly reeducate Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and other Indigenous people across Canada and the United States.
“Knowing the stories paints a pretty dark picture about what these children endured,” Hasselquist said. “And what many people across Turtle Island (North America) may have endured.”
In Canada, more than 6,000 children are said to have died during their reeducation amidst environments of rampant physical and sexual abuse, according to the Associated Press. In Alaska, the highest rates of abuse occurred in the Christian-operated schools, according to the state government archives.
“That has been denied by the government and churches, basically saying that sort of thing didn’t happen,” Hasselquist said. “It’s coming to light and there’s no denying it anymore.”
In the Southeast, Sheldon Jackson is likely the best-known residential school, but there were many others, run in some cases until the late 20th century.
“My mother went to Sheldon Jackson School. She returned home. These children did not return home. That’s a real deep pain for our people,” Hasselquist said. “Today was a day to honor those children and bring awareness to what has happened in the past.”
For Indigenous people, the revelations at Kamloops twist the knife in what’s already an untreated wound for many, Hasselquist said.
“This was something that goes untalked about. It gets pushed aside. People tell us things like ‘get over it,’ ” Hasselquist said. “We can’t get over it. These are children that were taken away from their families.”
Hasselquist said that she’d seen others on social media laying out raven feathers at the Sheldon Jackson School in honor of the 215 dead children.
“It fills the void for those who don’t know where their children are,” said Justin McDonald, another who attended to commemorate the children. “We pray for our children because they’re struggling.”
Attendees sang songs to honor the children, including the “Children’s Prayer” song, and many wore orange. Orange Shirt Day is a holiday on Sept. 30 addressing the trauma and impact of the residential schools in Canada, which has seen some crossover to the United States, Hasselquist said.
“It was beautiful to come together and acknowledge our feelings and lift each other up. After placing the raven and eagle feathers and flowers, we talked, and the weight was a little less,” Hasselquist said. “It was something to help us process what has been discovered and go forward.”
Healing the wounds of the past won’t unmake their happening in the first place, Hasselquist said.
“I find myself looking at my son,” Hasselquist said. “I am so thankful that he is with me and that our children don’t have to go through these experiences of the past. But those experiences of the past are still affecting us as a people today.”