Photo depicting writing in yellow chalk that reads, "They Were Kids." Candles and babies' and children's shoes surround the writing in the background.

OPINION: Every Native Child Matters in Seattle Too

by Caro Johnson and Millie Kennedy


On Saturday, July 17, participants in Seattle’s “Every Child Matters — Seattle Rally and March” gathered at Cal Anderson Park. The crowd stood, sat, drummed, and mourned in solidarity with the First Nations tribes who found 160 children on July 12, buried at Penelakut Island Residential School in British Columbia and in remembrance of the nine children’s remains, recovered from the Carlisle Boarding School in Pennsylvania, returning to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. 

The assimilative policy in Canada and the United States of removing children from their parents is an ongoing form of genocide. From the 1860s until the late 20th century, over 300 American Indian residential schools were a government-funded and church-run national program to “civilize” Native children by coercing them into schools and, once there, forbidding them to speak their languages or learn their traditions. Both Catholic and Protestant churches forced the children to assimilate to Anglo-American culture through brutal means, leaving many maimed for life physically and psychologically. Sexual abuse was common, and manual labor was compulsory for even the youngest children. Thousands of Native children died by suicide, hunger, and abuse at these boarding schools. 

Prior to the residential and boarding school policies, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died by germ warfare through the intentional infection of smallpox. This experience of genocide is so universal for Turtle Island’s Native people that individual members of various American Indian, Alaska Native, and First Nation tribes from near and far were in attendance at the July march in Seattle as well as many non-Native allies seeking justice and solidarity. 

At the Seattle Every Child Matters Rally, marchers carefully placed babies’ and children’s shoes outside at St. James Cathedral, directly across from the regional Catholic headquarters Archdiocese of Seattle, to symbolize the dead. 

But Catholic staff called the police on the mourning crowd, alleging the peaceful protestors were violating the Catholic churchgoers’ freedom of religion. The church played their bells at 5:25 p.m. to drown out an Indigenous elder’s traditional mourning song and drumming for fatally abused and starved Native children who never had a chance to grow up. The Seattle Police Department threatened the tearful crowd with forced removal, and one St. James parishioner forcefully shoved a solemn Native youth to get past her and into the church. This shameful disrespect and white fragility were deeply upsetting and marred the funeral atmosphere of the march.

Photo depicting a memorial with babies' and children's shoes surrounded by flowers and tealight candles.
(Photo: Zenitha L. Jimicum, a Tulalip Tribal member)

Both St. James Cathedral locally and the Catholic Church nationwide must answer for their role in these atrocities and their ongoing erasure of their abuses. Loud bells and calling the police will not make amends or healing and will instead reveal a depth of callous anti-Indigenous cruelty still occurring in the Seattle Archdiocese. The Catholic Church has a long history of denying their sexual and physical abuse of children worldwide. Pretending that these crimes never occurred will only make our collective wounds fester longer. It’s time to turn the confessional around and enact full truth and reconciliation actions from the institutions that abused and killed so many Native children. 

These are the demands of the march leaders:

  1. All 367 boarding schools in the U.S. be investigated
  2. Recognition by top U.S. government officials of the history of cultural genocide
  3. That the churches involved work with Tribes to return the lands the schools were on
  4. That survivors be seen, heard, and validated
  5. An apology for the atrocities against our stolen children and their parents
  6. Further nonviolent action until all demands are met

Native elders have been speaking about the extraordinarily painful and deadly methods used against their stolen children in the residential schools for many decades. They speak from their own personal and family experiences. Who has been listening? Why does it take the recovery of children’s dead bodies for the general public to believe their words? Anyone who has ever spoken to elders or read even one book about Native history knows that residential schools were far more like torture camps and brainwashing centers than they were like schools. Children and their families never had a choice about going there. The lessons taught were shame, stigma, physical pain, self-doubt, self-hatred, and erasure of culture and language. Many Natives have suffered and continue to suffer from collective trauma as the truth is being revealed through finding their lost children. Altogether it is literal and cultural genocide; deep mental wounds that will not heal until reparations are enacted. 

Yet there are even some tremendously misled people who would claim that the residential schools were in any way beneficial, like Manitoba’s Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Dr. Alan Lagimodiere. His shocking blunder, stating that the schools were meant to teach relevant skills, resulted in immediate confrontation with outraged yet respectful public outcry. As Wab Kinew, politician and author, responded on the very stage where they both stood, the schools were explicitly designed to kill the Indian in every child. Very often that death was literal, and the survivors had their culture ripped out of them by force. 

Canada is just beginning to reckon with its shameful history. The U.S. and the global Catholic Church must follow suit and initiate reparations if we are ever to heal. Tribes in the U.S. and Canada are conducting ongoing searches with ground penetrating radar and other technologies. We know many more Indigenous children are still underground, awaiting their homecoming back to their tribes for proper burial. Let’s start in Seattle with our local archdiocese: Why not work to help the Tribes achieve their demands, to start making amends for the Church’s disgraceful actions?


Millie Kennedy is from the Tsimshian Tribe and is a grassroots organizer. Millie also initiated the “Every Child Matters Rally and March” in Seattle on July 4 to cancel Independence Day.

Caro Johnson is a local Seattle advocate for public health and immediate return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands.

📸 Featured image by Zenitha L. Jimicum, a Tulalip Tribal member.

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