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The discovery in May 2021 of an unmarked mass grave of child school students at the former Indigenous boarding school in Kamloops, British Columbia, sent shock waves across Canada.
Other similar graves were later discovered across the country, sparking a period of mourning amid ongoing conversation about the impact of trying to wipe out indigenous ways.
These revelations have also drawn more attention to the history of such schools in the United States and the generational trauma they have inflicted on Native Americans.
A reader wanted to know how many Native American boarding schools existed in Minnesota, who ran them, and where they were located. They sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community-based reporting driven by reader questions.
Boarding schools were a tool of colonization to assimilate Native Americans into white, Christian culture. The goal was “to kill the Indian and save the man,” according to Captain Richard H. Pratt, who in 1879 founded the first state-funded off-reservation Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania. Native families were denied federal rations if they did not send their children to school, and children were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their cultural traditions.
Research by Denise Lajimodiere, a retired North Dakota State University professor and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians, shows that the schools were riddled with sexual abuse, violent disciplining methods, and poor medical care and living conditions. Although the schools’ stated goal was to help students get into Western business, Lajimodiere’s research found that most students were in practice trained as laborers and sometimes even hired out to white families involuntarily.
Lajimodiere’s book, Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors, collects 16 survivor testimonies from children who were forcibly removed from their families and abused.
How many schools?
The basic operations of Native American boarding schools are well documented, but specific details about the Minnesota sites are more murky. For one thing, there is no easy answer as to how many schools there were in the state.
In 2021, the Minnesota-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) released a list of 367 known boarding schools in the United States. It included 15 boarding schools in Minnesota.
But Lajimodiere, a former president of NABS and one of its founding members, has identified 16 schools in her research.
Then there’s the review of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, launched by Home Secretary Deb Haaland in 2021 to investigate abuse in the boarding school system. This list names 21 schools in Minnesota.
There are three different numbers, partly due to different definitions of what counts as a boarding school and partly because information about the schools is still being collected.
The NABS and the federal initiative are trying to track down other schools and additional information on well-known schools. For example, knowing how many students were enrolled and what years each school operated is crucial for a more complete understanding of the damage done.
Scattered all over Minnesota
Minnesota’s boarding schools were located across the state, pulling from all 11 reservations and holding dozens or hundreds of students at a time.
Many offered day-school programs and eventually reverted to all-day programming after federal funding for boarding programs ran out, the federal initiative found. Some were run by Catholics, but all schools, regardless of denomination, aimed to stamp out tribal beliefs in favor of Christianity.
The first such school in the state was the White Earth Indian School, which opened in 1871 and in its peak years enrolled up to 110 children at a time. This school closed in 1919.
Schools in Morris, St. Joseph, Collegeville, and Avoca had “industrial” in their names, examples of the alleged focus on training Native Americans for entry into the workforce.
Federal initiative data shows that in Collegeville in 1888, 47% of the students enrolled at St. John’s University were from St. John’s Indian Industrial School. The Morris Industrial School for Indians attended over two thousand children between 1887 and 1908.
St. Mary’s Mission at Red Lake operated as a boarding school in the first half of the 20th century. It is still run today as a Christian elementary school.
According to NABS, many survivors are unwilling or unable to speak out about memories that caused such deep trauma. Creating an ethical framework to support those who are willing to share their stories—before, during, and after they testify—takes great care and finesse. And the sheer scale of the work still to be done can be an obstacle in itself.
“I just listed the schools I could find, and it took me a year to just find the boarding schools for Minnesota,” Lajimodiere said.
She added, “I’m a retired professor, so I no longer have the means to try to travel and spend months and years doing this research for even one state.”
Lajimodiere said interest in American boarding schools has grown significantly since the discovery of Kamloops. In contrast, she recalled hearing about legal settlements regarding Canadian boarding schools in the 1990s.
“So Canada has been doing this since 1996, been involved in trying to create healing and awareness of the horrors of the boarding school era,” Lajimodiere said. “We’re getting national attention right now [in America] within the last year.”
Lajimodiere is one of only a few people in the US who has consistently searched for boarding schools over the past decade. Since Kamloops, she said she has conducted at least 60 interviews with global news outlets.
Lajimodiere has worked with Canadian colleagues who are part of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, attended meetings where survivors shared testimonies and learned from how Indigenous communities navigate the healing and reconciliation process.
While the discovery at Kamloops helped raise national awareness of boarding schools, Lajimodiere stressed that Canada is decades ahead of the US in the slow, chaotic process of moving forward.
“We don’t have a reconciliation committee,” she said. “I’m saying we haven’t even started telling the truth yet.”
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