MITCHELL, South Dakota — After the remains of 215 Indigenous children who died more than a century ago in a Canadian boarding school were unearthed, a Mitchell, South Dakota, Native American found a way to remember them.

Along the fence of the Prehistoric Indian Village on the shores of Lake Mitchell are 215 orange ribbons, tied next to each other in remembrance of the children who were believed to have died while attending a forced-assimilation boarding school known as the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The idea behind the memorial came from Journey Mackey, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who lives in Mitchell, said Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Prehistoric Indian Village. Mackey’s memorial was created with help from several girls at the Abbott House in Mitchell, a charity that provides residential treatment, therapeutic foster care and independent living for people between ages 7 and 23.

Gregg said the memorial was an “authentic” way of remembering and honoring the lives of the late Indigenous children, who forensic specialists believe some were as young as 3 years old.

Ribbons adorn the fence in front of the archeodome at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village to honor the Native children whose remains were recently discovered in Canada, including some with regional tribes. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Ribbons adorn the fence in front of the archeodome at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village to honor the Native children whose remains were recently discovered in Canada, including some with regional tribes. (Matt Gade / Republic)

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“We are very proud of Journey, and I was really moved by her passion to recognize that there were 215 lost souls who had been pretty much forgotten. But now the whole world knows about them,” Gregg said. “(Journey) and the young ladies from the Abbott House took this shocking news from Canada very seriously and felt that the Indigenous children needed contemporary Native American voices to tell their story.”

Gregg said the decision to use orange colored ribbons symbolizes racial awareness, cultural diversity and race tolerance.

The remains of the 215 children were discovered in May through ground radar penetrating technology. While forensic specialists are still working to identify and trace the remains of the late children back to their respective tribes, along with the causes of their deaths, the grim discovery has sparked investigations into similar undocumented deaths of Native American kids who were forced to attend assimilation boarding schools in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

While Indian boarding schools have been shut down in America, details of their assimilation practices included forcing the Native American children to speak English, cut their hair and adopt English names, stripping them of their cultural beliefs and ideals. Gregg said she’s learned of some of the tragic things that went on at the boarding schools from Native Americans who either had a relative forced into one or experienced it on their own.

“These children were forced to cut their hair, take a white name and not allowed to speak their own languages. You talk to some of the elders who did have to go to those schools, and it’s abhorrent to learn of the things that went on,” Gregg said.

Earlier this month, the remains of nine Lakota children who died at a Pennsylvania boarding school 140 years ago were returned to their tribes and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. The effort to identify and bring the remains of the late children back to their homeland took six years to accomplish.

“I watched the ceremony on television, and it was just moving,” Gregg said of the ceremonies in South Dakota remembering the children. “It’s inspiring to see the current generations care so deeply about their past loved ones who belonged to their tribe.”

In the wake of the discovery in Canada, Deb Haaland, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the first American Indian to hold the position, recently announced similar investigations will be conducted in America in hopes of finding burial sites to identify the bodies of the remains.

Gregg supports the push to uncover more potential remains of Indigenous peoples from boarding schools, calling it a movement that will help the country learn from the past.

“I believe we’re going to see more remains uncovered. Since the Canada school remains were unearthed, we’ve already seen more remains discovered,” she said.

As the leader of Mitchell’s Prehistoric Indian Village, which teaches tourists and guests about the history of the past Native American tribes that resided in the Mitchell area through its archaeological sites and ancient artifacts, Gregg said there needs to be more Native American history taught in the classroom.

By teaching the “raw and true” history of the forced assimilation of Native Americans, Gregg said it will help the country not repeat the same “mistakes” such as what went on a century ago at the Indian boarding schools.

“We’re not teaching our children what horrible things that were done to Native Americans centuries ago, and the efforts to uncover the remains of the children who were forced into these schools and died will help give everyone a better understanding of what went on,” she said. “When we identify what went on, we can learn from it together.”