GR vigil honors lives of Indigenous children found at boarding school

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Last week’s discovery of hundreds of remains buried at an Indigenous boarding school in Canada has renewed calls for searches here in Michigan.

Local Indigenous members held and vigil and rally Thursday at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in Grand Rapids to remember the lives of the children found buried at the school in Canada. 

Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools throughout North America starting in the 1800s and lasting until the late 20th century in some areas. 

Dozens of people showed up to the event. Various speakers at the event called for change, saying they feel there are more bodies to be discovered, including here in Michigan where there were three such schools.

A vigil at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in Grand Rapids responds to more than 200 Indigenous children being found buried at a residential school in Canada. (June 3, 2021)

The boarding schools opened with good intentions: to educate indigenous children in their own language. But the objective changed in the late 1880s when the federal government took over.

“It’s healing, wellness, people came here to mourn, to support one another, to talk about their family’s history as it related to one of the 357 boarding schools across the U.S.” said Shannon Martin, a member of the Gun Lake Potawatomi tribe who spoke at the vigil. “Remarkable. We needed this.”

The vigil began with 2 minutes and 15 seconds of silence, representing the 215 bodies found in an unmarked mass grave site in Canada. Candles, kids’ shoes and stuffed animals were on display to remember the lives of the children. 

A vigil at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in Grand Rapids responds to more than 200 Indigenous children being found buried at a residential school in Canada. (June 3, 2021)

“The boarding school era that was perpetrated on our American Indian people was hidden from history,” Martin said. “Not in the history books.”

Martin’s grandmothers attended the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The school’s motto was “Save the man, kill the Indian.” 

The boarding school programs crushed native cultures.

“That school released administrative records that only identified five deaths of children attributed to its 41 years of operation,” Martin said. “Researchers have found 227 undocumented children’s deaths related to that school, and we don’t know where these children are buried.”

Robert Olivarri, who is also a member of the Gun Lake Potawatomi Tribe, attended an Indigenous boarding school in New Mexico. The Vietnam War veteran says it was a degrading experience. 

“I was just a country kid and they’re basically trying to make me lose my culture, identity, turn me white, make me a Christian,” Olivarri said. “No, that’s not me, I’m a human.”

A vigil at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in Grand Rapids responds to more than 200 Indigenous children being found buried at a residential school in Canada. (June 3, 2021)

The people in attendance are looking for more to be done regarding the discovery of bodies at boarding schools. 

“We’re hoping we can compel the U.S. government first and foremost to acknowledge and apologize for what was done to our people, but also to fund investigations of these former school sites,” Martin said.

“If they ever start finding bodies in this country, they’ll find them,” Olivarri said. “All these boarding schools were cesspools of sexuality, alcoholism — just because it was a Christian school, don’t think for a second there wasn’t alcohol in there, other things.”

Olivarri and Martin hope vigils like the one they were a part of help raise awareness on the plight of the Indigenous community. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Growing Grand Rapids and Beyond

More Growing Grand Rapids and beyond

Top Stories On WOODTV.com

Know something newsworthy? Report It!

News 8 Links