June 29, 2021

Hundreds of unmarked graves were recently discovered at the sites of former state-run boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, first in British Columbia and then in Saskatchewan. Over more than a century, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and made to “acculturate” in harsh and abusive conditions—a practice that, in 2015, a Native-led commission termed “nothing short of cultural genocide.”

“When will Native lives matter?” 

by Christina Coad

My 17-year-old daughter asked that question when we learned last week about the more than 600 bodies discovered in Saskatoon, Canada. It is hard for me to call them bodies because they are not just bodies. They are our family, the aunties we never learned from, the uncles who should have been. Even here, the language is insufficient because when we process this information in terms of what could have been, we risk ignoring what is—it negates the present agony of so many. 

Seeing the harms of colonization as a static history is contrary to our understanding of ongoing trauma and does not constitute justice. Justice requires that we acknowledge the evolving devastation that Indigenous people experience in real time.

For all who brought those many sacred bundles into this world, lost them to the colonial policing of our families and then lost them to the next world, these bodies are at once our past, our present and our future. For this trauma, I have no profound or comforting words. I can only offer my grief and empathy for all those who suffer and will continue to suffer as more evidence is uncovered of what we have always known: that these are our children, and there will be more.

Native lives do matter. Black lives matter. Neither negates the other, and I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that the land we live on covers the ancestors of both. 

We share a common agony in bringing our truth to light. The search for justice will take all of us.

Christina Coad is executive director of the Alliance for Child Welfare Excellence, based at the University of Washington School of Social Work. An Indigenous woman of Oneida and European descent, she has dedicated her career to social services and advocacy for children and families in Canada and the U.S., including leadership in Indigenous child welfare.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition provides a list of mental health resources for those impacted by these recent developments.