Indian boarding schools aren't unique to Canada. Why one Lakota survivor calls American burial sites the 'tip of the iceberg'

·7 min read
Indian boarding school grave marker
James Ramos, a California State Assemblyman and historian, on Monday joined other tribal leaders across Southern California to support a federal investigation of Indian boarding schools operated under the U.S. government's cultural assimilation program in the 19th and 20th centuries. Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua/Getty Images
  • Burial sites of Indigenous children were discovered at former Indian boarding schools across Canada

  • Activists say there may be even more in the US, discoveries are only the 'tip of the iceberg'

  • Survivors are demanding reparations for many who struggle with trauma from Indian boarding schools

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Ruby Left Hand Bull Sanchez sits in the passenger seat of her husband's beat-up, white work truck, filled to the brim with tools and framed Native artwork, when she begins to sob.

"I think of all those babies," she struggles to say, tears running down her cheeks.

She hasn't stopped spontaneously sobbing in the weeks since news broke that a massive, unmarked grave of 215 Indigenous children was found outside an Indian residential school in British Columbia, Canada.

The shock was then followed by an even more gruesome discovery of an unmarked grave of 751 Indigenous peoples, mostly children, was located outside a former residential school in Saskatchewan.

Ruby Left Hand Bull Sanchez
Ruby Left Hand Bull Sanchez shares a photo of herself while at the St. Francis Rosebud Sioux Indian School in South Dakota. Courtesy of Ruby Left Hand Bull Sanchez

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," she told Insider.

It's not just a belief. She knows there are more lost children out there, and in the United States as well.

Now 63, Sanchez was 5-years-old when white government agents in suits and white priests in clerical collars yanked her away from her mother's arms.

Year after year, Sanchez's mother lived in agony as 11 of her 12 children were stolen and taken to the St. Francis Rosebud Sioux Indian School in South Dakota where Indigenous children were beaten, molested and raped night after night by the priests and nuns that ran it.

These houses of horror and brutality were first established in 1869. At that time, Indigenous mothers, fathers and grandparents would set up their tipis just outside the schools to be near their babies. "The kids would cry, and the mothers and fathers would hear them crying and they'd cry, too," Sanchez said.

At a Denny's parking lot in Denver, Colorado, Sanchez sits down for coffee and conversation. The restaurant is mere miles from where she used to live while homeless.

That area is called 'Lakota Corner' because of all the Indigenous homeless people - Lakota, Diné, Apache - who find safety and solace with their fellow suffering, traumatized, or down-on-their-luck Natives who live on or near the block.

Sanchez is eight years sober now, but said she's always on the brink of backsliding - always a memory or trigger away from drowning in the "white man's poison."

If she doesn't keep a handle on the pain and trauma she struggles with every single day, it can take over - more than 50 years after living in a brutal hell pit with monsters who masqueraded as nuns and priests.

The US has its own, dark history of Indian boarding schools

All over the US, at the 357 Indian boarding schools in places like Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and dozens more, Native kids were beaten black and blue for the smallest infractions.

"When I arrived [to St. Francis Indian School], on the first day, a nun shoved a bar of lye soap in my mouth," she revealed, noting that her first crime in the eyes of pseudo-pious pedophiles was that she was born Sicangu Lakota.

By her second day, the crime was that she spoke her Lakota language in the presence of a haggard nun.

A child caught speaking their language would have a needle shoved through their tongue or be made to stand in front of the class where a nun or priest would smack it with a wooden ruler as an example to the other children to never again speak "those savage languages."

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Sanchez said she doesn't speak Lakota anymore - not because she doesn't know it (in fact, Lakota was her first language) but because it's too traumatic.

The sound and cadence that would once come from her mouth dredges up too many brutal, vicious memories of what she personally experienced, what she was made to witness for years, night and day.

"If I saw my brother, I couldn't even give him a hug because we'd get whipped if we did," she said.

Sanchez, today, dons a pair of beautifully beaded earrings, a black fedora with red trim, a leather jacket, and a T-shirt that reads, "SICANGU LAKOTA OYATE." She looks equally ready for a protest or a pow wow. She catches the eye of nearly everyone she cruises by with that Native gait headed to a table in the back.

The waitress takes Sanchez's order. They order a massive breakfast of bacon and eggs and pancakes. She again begins to cry. "There are tunnels under St. Francis between the priests' and nun's quarters to where we slept," she said.

She details how children slept in bunk beds, each pretending to be asleep, before the door would suddenly creak open in the middle of the night. It would be a priest walking in to rob a child of their innocence. After the priests slithered in, the nuns were on their way.

"I'd lie there in my bed and pray that I wouldn't be next," she said softly. "Some of the kids never came back."

That's one thing that still haunts Sanchez about St. Francis. Another is the incinerator that once sat outside the school. It was "human size," but Sanchez never witnessed what it was used for.

She likens the imagery to Auschwitz and Hitler. The comparison isn't a stretch. Reservations were first established as prison camps, predating the Holocaust.

Historians also cite that Hitler was inspired by the Indian reservation system, referring to the Russians as 'redskins' and lauding America's efficiency at rounding up Natives and corralling them into one place for starvation and, eventually, extermination.

"Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history," John Toland, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer wrote.

"He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity."

Survivors are calling for reparations while struggling to heal

Indian boarding schools
A gravestone at the Carlisle Indian Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where Indigenous children who were forcibly stripped from their communities and cultures, are buried. Library of Congress

Back at the boarding schools, the children who survived became the adults left to medicate the pain away - managing their trauma as best they could for the rest of their lives.

Part of Sanchez's therapy is traditional jewelry making.

"This is for you," she gestured while gathering to leave. In her hands sat a turquoise, red, and white bead and bone necklace with an eagle feather suspended at the bottom. "I made it," she beams, gleefully.

Sanchez finishes her meal as dark clouds roll in over nearby Sloan's Lake. Thunder in the distance just over the Rockies. Inspired, she shares the story of the Lakota's sacred land.

According to oral tradition, two Lakota men rested and prayed by a river long ago in the Black Hills, when suddenly a young girl appears. The child sprouts up through the lake, feet still immersed in the water.

The girl says to the men "find us" before slowly descending back into the river.

Sanchez called it a message - a message to find all the Indigenous peoples, the children and the babies, who are "still stuck here." They are the ancestors who cannot move on to the next place until they are returned to their people, their families, and given the proper prayers and songs and burials.

Shortly after, news broke that 10 Indigenous children who are still buried near the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, would be exhumed and returned to their people.

Nine of the deceased kids are Sicangu Lakota.

For Sanchez, that's 1o children who are coming home to her community. They can finally move on to the next place.

Thousands more are "still stuck here."

With more than 160 "unmarked" graves uncovered in Canada this week, the search continues.

Read the original article on Insider

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting