My heart sank when the news broke that a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children had been found in at a former Indian Residential School in Canada. I cried tears for the 215 children whose lives were cut short. Tears for their families and their communities. No on deserves to be thrown into an unmarked grave, especially a child. This isn’t just a Canadian problem, we have blood on our soil too.
The United States didn’t do much better, they believed in the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the child.” We had more Indian residential schools on US soil than Canada. Hundreds of thousands of children were taken from their parents and sent to residential school. Some of those children went in and never came out. All sites in the US need to be explored for unmarked graves.
The 215 children hits to close to home for me. My Grandfather Clifford could have been one of those children. He was slated for a Indian Residential school. However because of the 1919 flu pandemic he and his siblings were sent south to the Minnesota State Public School for Abandoned and Neglected Children. He was taken from his mother when he was just two years old. His brother Richard was 5 years old and baby “Glenwood” was just 11 months old. Grace had no choice, if she tried to hide her children from the agents they would have beat her and arrested her for hiding them.
11 month old “Glenwood” was adopted out upon arrival. When all three children entered the school they were categorized as “Indian, brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes, good teeth.” Clifford was contracted out as indentured servant at just 4 years old. His exit form listed him as “white, brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes, good teeth.” With a stroke of a pen his race was magically changed and he fell off the tribal rolls. Clifford was a victim of paper Genocide.
Paper Genocide was used as a tool to shrink the tribes and drive them to assimilate into society. It was used to shrink the population on the reservations and fractured family lineage. Today we have full blooded Natives who are not on their tribe’s rolls because somewhere along the line an Agent marked the race box as “white.” With a stroke of a pen family lines were wiped out and forever changed. Paper Genocide did its job.
Yet Paper Genocide cannot kill the need to find your family. It may have made it harder, but with a little determination it can and will be done. When Clifford was in his 60s he found his mom. She was old by then, but she was over joyed because she knew this day would come. That she would be reunited with her son. Richard and baby “Glenwood” are still lost to the sands of time. She died never seeing their faces again. She didn’t even get to meet my father, yet he gave me her original name, Geneva as my middle name to honor her. When she married Cox she changed her name to Genevieve in an attempt to shed her past and to conform to the white ways of life.
My heart needed to find Grace, she was lost. I poured through record after record with no luck. She was lost to the sands of time. That is until I met some at a conference in college. His grandfather was Genevieve’s brother and he had been digging to find out what happened to her first set of children. When I told him “I am Clifford’s granddaughter,” he pulled me into a hug. I was his family and he would become mine. He was looking for her grave too.
Sadly I outlived David, cancer got him. I didn’t give up on finding her. Turns out I had canoed right by her dozens of times. And drove by her more times than I can count on my way to Bayfield/Ashland. I can’t go back in time to give my Dad the chance to meet her. I can however give him the chance to tend to her grave for the rest of his days. She was lost, but now she’s found.
She and her children were victims of Paper Genocide, relocation and assimilation. Richard and “Glenwood” may be gone from this world, but I as their great niece will do everything I can to bring them home and honor their lives for the rest of my days. They deserve that.
These stories need to be told. What’s happening in Canada with the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools happened in this country too. We need to take a stand, we must never forget about the schools, orphanages, and paper genocide. Generational trauma is alive in Indian Country and in order to heal it we need to bring all of our children home. No one should ever be lost to the sands of time.