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More unmarked graves found at Indian boarding school north of Bonners Ferry, but there’s uncertainty over whether remains were children

UPDATED: Wed., July 7, 2021

Leon Eagle Tail, left, and Shawnee Bearcub listen to Desja Eagle Tail sing June 13 at a vigil held at The Gathering Place near Spokane Falls held after the discovery of 215 bodies in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. On Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near the St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia.  (COLIN TIERNAN/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Leon Eagle Tail, left, and Shawnee Bearcub listen to Desja Eagle Tail sing June 13 at a vigil held at The Gathering Place near Spokane Falls held after the discovery of 215 bodies in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. On Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near the St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in British Columbia. (COLIN TIERNAN/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The grisly discoveries keep coming.

On Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band of the Ktunaxa Nation announced the discovery of 182 unmarked graves found close to a former Indian boarding school near Cranbrook, British Columbia. Cranbrook is about 80 miles north of Bonners Ferry.

Lower Kootenay Band Chief Jason Louie said he learned of the discovery a week ago from Joe Pierre, chief of the aqam community, which is part of the Ktunaxa Nation. The aqam, spelled ʔaq̓am by the band, found the bodies in 2020 with the help of ground-penetrating radar in order to avoid disturbing unmarked graves.

Louie says he believes many of the 182 remains are children who attended the St. Eugene’s Mission School, which the Catholic Church ran from 1912 until the 1970s.

The finding marks the third time since May that Canadian First Nations leaders have announced the discovery of unmarked graves at an Indian boarding school.

In May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation said it had found 215 bodies in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Last week, the Cowessess First Nation said it had found 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

But the ʔaq̓am community is less certain than Louie that the 182 graves hold the remains of Native children.

After the Lower Kootenay Band issued a news release Wednesday explaining the discovery, the aqam community issued one of its own. The release states that it is “extremely difficult to establish whether or not these unmarked graves contain the remains of children who attended the St. Eugene Residential School.”

The cemetery was established in 1865, the aqam press release states. Since its inception, it has been a common final resting place for white settlers and deceased patients of the St. Eugene Hospital.

The aqam community could not be reached for comment by press time Wednesday.

The U.S. and Canadian governments, as well as the Catholic Church, established more than 350 Indian boarding schools in the 1800s up until the 1970s. The schools existed to assimilate thousands of Indigenous children into white society. Native children were often forcibly taken from their families, forced to abandon their tribal traditions and beaten if they spoke their Native languages.

Many Native leaders say the boarding schools did tremendous damage to tribal cultures and contributed to immense, intergenerational trauma that still impacts Indigenous peoples today.

“There’s a trickle-down effect of trauma that goes generation to generation from this,” said Gary Aitken Jr., chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Indians, which is part of the Ktunaxa Nation.

The recent discoveries of bodies in unmarked graves has drawn unprecedented attention to Indian boarding schools, which many North Americans had never heard about.

Louie said he’s sure the unmarked graves, some only 3 to 4 feet deep, hold the remains of Ktunaxa Nation members. He said well over 100 children from Lower Kootenay attended the St. Eugene’s Mission School. Children from bands of the Ktunaxa Nation and other neighboring First Nations also attended the school.

“I just want the truth to be told, that’s it,” Louie said.

According to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center, the school saw recurring influenza, mumps, measles, chicken pox and tuberculosis outbreaks.

Some of Louie’s family members attended the school and have told horrific stories, Louie said.

Louie said one of his relatives was told to take a potato gunny sack to the incinerator. The boy was told not to look inside, but he was too curious, and peeked.

“Inside the potato gunny sack was an aborted fetus, which he was instructed to put in the incinerator,” Louie said.

Aitken Jr. said he isn’t surprised by the discovery, after hearing about the others, but this one hit him harder emotionally.

“I felt like it was only a matter of time,” Aitken Jr. said.

Aitken Jr. said he hopes these discoveries can shine a light on the horror of Indian boarding schools.

“It’s something that gives non-Natives and others a different perspective,” he said.

At the same time, he’s worried people won’t pay enough attention to these discoveries.

“A lot of times, things like this get swept under the rug and minimized,” Aitken said.

Louie said the Catholic Church needs to be held accountable for what happened at St. Eugene’s, although he’s not sure it’s possible for First Nations to take legal action against the church.

“The Catholic Church was front and center on the attempt of mass genocide on Native peoples,” Louie said. “The Catholic Church has a lot of questions to answer.”

The Canadian government needs to do more to acknowledge what happened, too, Louie said.

“Canada has kept this such a dark secret for so long,” Louie said. “I want to say very bluntly that there was a holocaust in Canada, and it wasn’t until 2021 that these stories are coming to the general public.”

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