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Reflections of Residential Schools from TFA South Dakota Leaders

Josie Green, Mia Francis, and Beau LeBeaux share reflections on the discovery of children's graves across Canadian residential school grounds and the launch of the U.S. Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

The following reflections were shared in an email to the Teach For America South Dakota community in July 2021.

Mitakuyepi, TFA-SD fam + community—

Micinksi, my son, is Oglala Lakota and Sissetowan Wahpetonwan Dakota with sunkissed skin and the spirit of a little hawk (Cetan Cik’ala - his ndn name.)  He’s quick, observant, ornery, sings Lakota lullabies to his baby sibling and can’t wait for his braided hair to be as long as his ate’s. The sound of his belly laugh will make anyone smile.  His primary mode of communication is body language, which can be confusing for others.  My son is Indigenous and he refuses to be anything but. I admire this refusal, it demands new possibilities in the world around him.  

Since May, we’ve heard of the findings of hundreds of children’s bodies through ground penetrating radar at former residential schools. Though this horrific evidence may be news now, the stories that have travelled through both time and our people of the cultural erasure and genocide are not. I grew up hearing the stories, carrying them in my bones, and experiencing the fear that I could never quite place its origin every time I stepped into any school building. 


“We instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin.  When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.”  - Bishop Vital Grandin, 1875

This colonized nation’s education system is founded upon the elimination of my son’s being, forcing his abandonment of self. As teachers within this education system, we are faced with decisions to continue erasing or to look and build.  We must look at that truth. We must sit with that violence and the pain that comes with it.  If we do, we’ll be able to see and honor the wholeness of the children in classrooms today. Since the  introduction of these schools I know that Indigenous children were never meant to turn into Indigenous adults. And yet, here we are.  Here I am, my existence and motherhood are a refusal of assimilation. So when my son and others’ children enter spaces with you, remember the children whom their existence honors and decide how you will meet that grandeur of responsibility. Remember that they are already meeting their responsibility to those children by wearing their hair, learning their languages, loving their families, and even though most spaces weren’t created for their survival, they show up anyway. 

Josie Green - Oglala Lakota

"Through healing, we can work to create a better future"

Seven generations, or severed generations? 

Thousands of generations lost. Thousands of children who will never come home. 

Residential schools were designed to completely destroy children’s souls, gifted wrap by the government to be presented as colonial and church ideals of providing an ‘education’. Everything that made us who we are, to be completely stripped in the name of ‘civilizing the savages’. 

But here I am, surviving and breathing from 8 generations of Onkwehonwe (Haudenosaunee) from the Akwesasne Mohawk Traditional Territory. Angry but alive, I am here. Thankful for the strength, resilience and power running through my blood from my ancestors. Grateful for the generations of humor that never dulled our spirits.  And I plan to strengthen and carry that spirit on to the next generations to come. 

As a Onkwehonwe women working within Indigenous education, I carry the trauma of what those schools did to our children and families. But I also carry the responsibility of now providing our children with the education they deserve. An education that honors their mind, body and soul. An education that supports their culture, heritage and traditions. 

We can never change what happened in the past, but through healing, we can work to create a better future for those next generations to come. 

Mia Francis - Akwesasne Mohawk (South Dakota '14)

"Their souls can now rest in peace"

As I heard of the news of the discovery of the remains of hundreds (and still counting) of native children at residential schools in Canada my first thought was…finally. I have no idea why I thought that and I still don’t. But I believe that, as an Indigenous man, my spirit had known ‘something’. I felt it in my heart. After a few minutes, I became angry. Then I felt heartbroken. How could ‘people of God’ do this to CHILDREN? However, for some reason, I did not feel surprised. And the fact that I did not feel surprised is sad in itself. We, as Indigenous people, have suffered countless atrocities. We have suffered by ‘the Hand of God’ for centuries. From being beaten for speaking our language to being imprisoned and often killed for praying in our own customs and ceremonies, we have endured so much. Yet, we are told to just forget about it and move on. But now…finally!

As horrific as it is, those little ones were finally set free. Their little souls can now rest in peace. They can have prayers said for them. They can have ceremonies done for them. They can be guided to the spirit world. They don’t have to be afraid any more. They don’t have to be hungry, cold, or sad any more.

Many of you will not understand and I hope you’ll never have to try to understand something like this. But our children, our students will understand and they will know. Many of them will not show that they understand, but their souls will know…just like mine did.  Mitakuye Oyasin…”We are all related”…even to those children who died many years ago in Canada.

And just think…That’s only in Canada right now. The United States of America is also hiding ‘secrets’ and many of us are waiting for our children, our relatives, to be ‘discovered’ so that they can be set free…finally.

Beau LeBeaux - Oglala Lakota


Learn more about Indigenous residential schools: