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The discovery of an unmarked mass grave of child students at the former Indigenous boarding school in Kamloops, British Columbia, in May 2021 sent shockwaves through Canada.

Other similar graves were later discovered across the country, sparking a period of mourning amid an ongoing conversation about the effects of trying to wipe out Indigenous ways of life.

Those revelations have also drawn more attention to the history of such schools in the United States, and the generational trauma they inflicted on Native Americans.

A reader wanted to know how many Native American boarding schools existed in Minnesota, as well as who ran them and where they were located. They sought answers from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community-based reporting projected fueled by reader questions.

Boarding schools were a tool of colonization, intended to assimilate Native Americans into white, Christian culture. The goal was to "kill the Indian and save the man," according to Captain Richard H. Pratt, who started the country's first federally funded, off-reservation Native American boarding school in Pennsylvania in 1879. Native families were denied federal rations if they did not send their kids to the schools, and children were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their cultural traditions.

Research by Denise Lajimodiere, a retired North Dakota State University professor and a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, shows that the schools were rife with sexual abuse, violent methods of discipline and poor medical care and living conditions. Though the stated goal of the schools was to help students join the Western economy, Lajimodiere's research found that in practice, most students were trained as menial laborers, and sometimes even involuntarily rented out to white families.

Lajimodiere's book "Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors" collects 16 survivor testimonies of children forcibly taken from their families and mistreated.

How many schools?

The basic operations of Native American boarding schools have been well documented, but specific details about Minnesota's sites are murkier. For one, there isn't a straightforward answer about how many schools there were in the state.

In 2021, the Minnesota-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) released a list of 367 known boarding schools in the United States. It included 15 boarding schools in Minnesota.

But Lajimodiere, a former president of NABS and one of its founding members, has identified 16 schools in her research.

Then there is the tally by the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which was started in 2021 by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to investigate abuse in the boarding school system. That list names 21 schools in Minnesota.

There are three different numbers in part because of differing definitions of what counts as a residential school, and in part because information is still being gathered on the schools.

NABS and the federal initiative are trying to track down more schools and additional information about known schools. Knowing how many students were enrolled and the years each school operated, for example, is critical for a more complete understanding of the damage done.

Scattered across Minnesota

Minnesota's boarding schools were located all over the state, pulling from all 11 reservations and holding dozens or hundreds of students at a time.

Many offered day school programs and eventually went back to exclusively day programming after federal funding for boarding programs ran out, according to federal initiative findings. Several were run by Catholics, but all schools regardless of denomination aimed to stamp out tribal beliefs in favor of Christianity.

The state's first such school was White Earth Indian School, which opened in 1871 and took up to 110 children at a time during its peak years. That school closed in 1919.

Schools in Morris, St. Joseph, Collegeville and Avoca had "industrial" in their name, examples of the ostensible focus on training Native Americans to enter the workforce.

Federal initiative data shows that in Collegeville, 47% of students enrolled in St. John's University were from the St. John's Indian Industrial School in 1888. Morris Industrial School for Indians saw over two thousand children attend between 1887 and 1908.

St. Mary's Mission in Red Lake operated as a boarding school in the first half of the 20th century. It still operates today as a Christian-based elementary school.

Many survivors are unwilling or unable to talk about memories that caused such profound trauma, according to NABS. Creating an ethical framework to support those who are willing to share their stories — before, during and after their testimony — requires considerable care and delicacy. And the sheer scale of the work yet to be completed can be an obstacle of its own.

"All I did was just list the schools I could find, and it took me a year to just find the boarding schools for Minnesota alone," Lajimodiere said.

She added: "I'm a retired professor, so I no longer have funding to try to travel and spend months and years doing that research for even one state."

More recognition

Lajimodiere said interest in American boarding schools has grown significantly since the Kamloops discovery. By contrast, she recalled hearing in the 1990s about legal settlements relating to Canada's boarding schools.

"So Canada's been doing this since 1996, been involved with trying to do healing and awareness of the horrors of the residential school era," Lajimodiere said. "We just now are getting national attention [in America] within the last year."

Lajimodiere is one of a handful of people in the U.S. consistently researching boarding schools in the past decade. Since Kamloops, she said she has done at least 60 interviews with global news outlets.

Lajimodiere has worked with Canadian counterparts who are part of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, attending meetings where survivors shared testimony and learning from how Indigenous communities are navigating the healing and reconciliation process.

While the discovery at Kamloops helped bring boarding schools to national attention, Lajimodiere stressed that Canada is decades ahead of the U.S. in the slow, messy process of moving forward.

"We don't have a reconciliation committee," she said. "I say that we haven't even started the truth-telling."

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