Excerpted From: Julia M. Zabriskie, Searching for Indigenous Truth: Exploring a Restorative Justice Approach to Redress Abuse at American Indian Boarding Schools, 64 Boston College Law Review 1039 (April, 2023) (217 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JuliaZabriskieIn May 2021, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation of Canada received a chilling answer to the long unanswered question of the whereabouts of thousands of missing children. With the assistance of new technology, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation discovered the remains of over two hundred Indigenous children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. “[N]o words can express the level of grief and sorrow” Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said after the discoveries of the graves during the summer of 2021. Members of the Nation had for years heard stories from their family members of friends and siblings who vanished during their time at residential schools. These familial stories brought about the investigation of Kamloops and ultimately led to the discovery of the school children's graves. The discovery merely provided evidence for a dark truth that was already suspected by many members of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

The finding of the remains brought other survivors to share stories of their time at Kamloops. For example, survivor Evelyn Camille spoke of her disturbing time at Kamloops. She explained that students at Kamloops were forced to perform domestic chores. Furthermore, at the time that she graduated she had only received a fourth grade level of education.

Garry Gottfriedson, another Kamloops survivor, detailed witnessing horrible abuse as a child at the school On one particular occasion, Gottfriedson witnessed a nun beat a child who could not speak English in an attempt to force the child to speak the language. After hearing the news of the graves discovered in 2021, Gottfriedson and his brother visited the site in remembrance of the children and encountered other men who were doing the same. One of the men present at the gravesite told Gottfriedson that the school forced other students to dig the graves for the deceased children. Gottfriedson believes that residential school investigations will cause the Indigenous community to suffer trauma but also expressed that there is a need to continue searching for answers.

Since May 2021, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and Canada as a whole, have dealt with the fallout of discovering the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In June 2021, while the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation was still grappling with the discovery, news broke that over 700 more unmarked Indigenous children's graves were found at the former Marieval school in Saskatchewan, another residential school. These discoveries were two in a series of similar findings made throughout the summer.

These horrifying discoveries not only rocked Canada, but also headlined news in the United States. On the heels of the discoveries in Canada, United States Secretary of the Interior, Debra Haaland, announced a federal investigation into Indian boarding schools in the United States, which resulted in a report published by the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in May 2022. Canada is not alone in its colonial past; the United States also utilized a system of separating NativeAmerican children from their parents and forcing them to attend abusive boarding schools. It is generally accepted that, similar to Canada, many Native children died at United States boarding schools. In the Summer of 2021, for example, activists commenced investigations for bodies at former schools in Colorado. These schools were specifically identified for investigation for remains because deaths at these Colorado institutions were often listed in newspapers and other archives. The report published by the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs reported fifty three gravesites currently found with more expected as investigations proceed. Soon, NativeAmericans- and the United States as a whole-will have to grapple with the questions of how to address the tragedies uncovered by these efforts.

Restorative justice provides one potential avenue to address the trauma inflicted by Indian boarding schools. Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional western justice systems, which focuses on finding truth and supporting victims as opposed to punishing perpetrators. Although there are many models of restorative justice, the truth and reconciliation model, which usually takes the form of fact-finding organizations that seek to find the truth about abuses and promote healing, frequently gets used in state-run restorative justice programs. In fact, legislators proposed the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission in the United States to address boarding school abuses, but the proposed bill has not progressed beyond legislative hearings. Given the challenges of securing other legal remedies for victims, this Note argues that a truth and reconciliation restorative justice remedy should be explored as the proper way to address the abuses perpetrated by Indian boarding schools against NativeAmericans.

Part I of this Note sets out the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States, provides a brief introduction to restorative justice and its association with IndigenousAmerican beliefs and practices, and explains facets of other legal remedies. Part II evaluates previous examples of restorative justice used for Indigenous matters in North America and discusses their successes and failures. Part III argues that a restorative justice model provides the best remedy for the abuses experienced at NativeAmerican boarding schools.

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The United States government's probe into potential burial sites at the locations of former Indian boarding schools will require the government to address past abuses. Given the history of Indian boarding schools and the benefits and flexibility of restorative justice practices in the context of historical mass atrocities, a restorative justice approach should be considered as a potential remedy. The State of Maine and Canada both conducted restorative justice programs with great success. Both governments utilized a truth and reconciliation model of restorative justice, which the United States should follow. Historic abuse and mass atrocities are difficult to address, but the needs and emotions of the victims should be paramount in addressing them.