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Boarding schools' troubling legacy remembered in Bismarck walk

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Orange Shirt Day participants Love Hopkins, 11, left, and Mauryce Demarce, 13, both of White Shield, carry signs prior to a walk from Custer Park in downtown Bismarck to the state Capitol on Thursday evening. Sheridan McNeil, of Bismarck, said Sept. 30 is called Orange Shirt Day in Canada and the United States to "remember children who were lost in boarding schools all over the country."

Tawacin Was’ake Win walked Thursday evening toward the state Capitol, reflecting on stories her grandparents told her about the years they spent alongside other Native American children in boarding schools.

She described the memories as ones of "hurting."

"I see it, I hear it, but I'll never understand their pain," she said.

Was'ake Win, 22, lives in Bismarck and is a member of the Yankton Sioux Nation. Her grandmother attended the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, then a Christian boarding school for Native American children.

Her grandmother told her that she and other students had to wake up early, attend church, do homework, read the Bible and clean under the watchful eyes of school and church officials.

"If it wasn't up to par, some type of chemical was put on the floor and their knees were put into it," she said, adding that her grandma also spoke of school officials hitting children's knuckles with rulers until they bled.

Was'ake Win was one of several dozen runners who took part in a relay from the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to Bismarck for an "Orange Shirt Day" event to honor boarding school survivors and Indigenous children who died at the schools.

The event began in Canada in 2013, its name derived from a shiny orange shirt a member of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, Phyllis Webstad, received from her grandmother before moving to a residential school in British Columbia. The school took the shirt away as soon as she started.

Was'ake Win wore an orange shirt Thursday along with more than 100 other people who all walked toward the Capitol after the runners arrived at Custer Park in Bismarck. Young children's shoes were placed on the Capitol steps alongside stuffed animals and decades-old photos of children at boarding schools.

Was'ake Win said she took part "to show my ancestors, my grandparents and future generations that the church will be held accountable, that the babies will be brought home."

She was referring to the Catholic church and Episcopal church. They, as well as other Christian denominations and the government, ran boarding schools with troubling legacies across North America from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s.

Attention to the facilities’ histories has grown in recent months after the discovery of hundreds of children's graves at former boarding school sites in Canada. In the United States, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has announced a review of federal boarding school policies and records, including efforts to identify potential burial sites at the schools.

The schools aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into European-American culture by separating them from their families. They took measures to strip students of their tribal identities, such as forbidding the children from speaking their native languages.

Living conditions at the schools often were poor, and some children were abused, according to historical accounts. Students often tried to run away to their families and could receive harsh punishments when school officials deemed them to have misbehaved.

The Interior Department on Thursday said it would begin consulting with tribes as part of its review. The agency seeks their input on issues such as the management of former boarding school sites and the potential repatriation of children's remains. The department plans to release a report on the topic by the start of April 2022.

The federal government operated two boarding schools in North Dakota, including the Bismarck Indian School near the Missouri River. The site today is known as Fraine Barracks, the headquarters of the North Dakota National Guard.

Children from reservations in North Dakota and surrounding states attended the Bismarck school from 1908-37. The government also operated a boarding school for Native American children at Fort Totten near Devils Lake.

Children from North Dakota tribes also were sent to boarding schools in other states, such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

One of the speakers at Thursday's event said her great-grandparents met at that school.

Waniya Locke of Standing Rock helped organize the runners, many of whom have taken part in other runs to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.

"I see them breaking all the toxic cycles created by the boarding school era," she said of the young participants. "They give me hope for the future."

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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