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Onondagas march to remember those lost in residential schools

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Ellen Abbott
Members of the Onondaga Nation in the shadow of Syracuse's statue of Christopher Columbus during a rally Saturday, July 31, 2021

A six mile march from the Onondaga Nation to downtown Syracuse Saturday brought attention to a tragic chapter in the history of relations between indigenous people and the U.S. and Canadian governments. For decades, thousands of children were pulled from their homes, and placed in residential homes with the goal of stripping away their heritage.

Virgil Brave Rock is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who now lives and works on the Onondaga Nation. He was 6-years-old when he was taken from his family to live in the Saint Mary Residential School in Alberta, Canada. He didn’t see his family again until he was 15.

"And I did not fit. Because those two adults sitting there did not raise me. They were my Mom and Dad, but I had so much anger and pain," said Brave Rock. "That I did not know what it was."

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Ellen Abbott
Virgil Brave Rock speaks at a rally in downtown Syracuse Saturday, July 30, 2021

He told his story to the more than 100 individuals who marched from the Onondaga Nation to Columbus Circle in Syracuse. His life at the residential home in the 1960s and 70s was one of deprivation, fear and survival. It started on the first day when he was assigned a number and told never to use his given name again.

“I’m 226," Brave Rock said. "That’s my number."

And if you didn’t comply, there were beatings. And other punishments for anyone retaining any part of the culture these children were born into.

"If you were caught speaking our language, we had to put industrial soap in our mouths until our tongues blistered," he said.

Many of his friends simply disappeared.

"As a 6-year-old, when your partner’s gone missing in the dorm, you don’t push it. What happened to those kids who disappeared in the dorms, I don’t know. Maybe they end up in the boogie yard," he said.

The boogie yard was the name kids used for a scary place you didn’t want to go. It was actually a mass graveyard on the grounds of these residential homes. Recently more than 1,000 unmarked graves of indigenous people have been found in Canada and the United States at the site of these residential schools.

Awhenjiosta Meyers, a member of the Onondaga Nation, wants more people to know about this.

“We’ve known about these stories. We’ve known about these burials. We’ve known about these bones," said Meyers. It’s just sad that people went into an open field and found a mass grave. It's no different than the holocaust."

There were more than 130 of these Native American boarding schools funded by the U.S. and Canadian governments in the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly run the Catholic Church. The goal was to assimilate indigenous youth, and they succeeded in a way.

"Culture at that time was lost because parents didn’t have no-one to teach it to," said Brave Rock. "And many families were offered alcohol because of the trauma of losing their children."

The Onondaga are trying to bring that culture back, and there were dozens of Onondaga youth who took part in Saturday's march. But the scars from this story still exist. Sid Hill is a spiritual leader at the Onondaga Nation. His mother lived in a residential boarding school. She has never hugged him.

"I guess that’s what they taught her in that school," said Hill.

His message. Never forget.

“We need to know this history. It’s important for our people to know. For everybody to know. So it never happens again," he said.