On May 27, the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School was searched and the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered. In the months that followed, more former residential school locations were searched, and the number of unmarked graves found rose to more than 1,100. Unfortunately, these numbers are just the tip of the ice berg. With more than 350 former residential school sites in North America, the discovery of even more unmarked graves appears inevitable.
“I think raising awareness on the issue [of residential schools] is very important because there are a lot of moving parts to residential schools and Indian day schools that many people don’t really understand or were never taught because it wasn’t in their history books,” Chrome LC attackman Randy Staats, who is a native of Six Nations, said.
For those unaware, residential schools were a series of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous peoples funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches. As the remains of thousands of victims continue to be discovered, pro lacrosse players like Lyle Thompson and Randy Staats are using their platforms to educate others on the history of residential schools and the negative effects that continue to plague Indigenous communities.
Even before the discoveries, Turtle Island Lacrosse, a platform started by Staats along with Brendan Bomberry and Colyn Lyons in 2020, began speaking on issues that plagued the Indigenous community, including the topic of residential schools.
“I like to educate people when they come up and ask me; I don’t go around preaching. But I always let people know, if they ever have any questions about who I am, or my culture, I’m always available to talk,” Staats said. “My experience with a lot of this stuff is that people who ask me think that I’m going to have an angry tone, but it’s quite the opposite. We just want to talk and let you know our viewpoint and where we stand on issues.”
While Staats’s advocacy has occurred off the field while rehabbing a season-ending knee injury he sustained during the Premier Lacrosse League training camp, Thompson’s efforts to raise awareness have been more visible on the field. Shortly after the discovery at Kamloops, the Cannons attackman began wearing an orange ribbon in his braid during every game. The act didn’t go unnoticed, with NBC announcers Brendan Burke and Ryan Boyle spotlighting the ribbon on the PLL broadcasts.
The PLL itself has also done its part to raise awareness, announcing that all players would be sporting a helmet strap that features the Every Child Matters logo to stand in solidarity with the movement starting on July 9. The straps produced by LaxStraps were also put on sale to the public, with part of the proceeds going towards the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).
“I planned on doing a campaign to show support and raise awareness to the tragedies within the boarding schools for our Indigenous communities,” LaxStraps founder Steven Sadler said. “Then the PLL reached out with their idea and a terrific design.”
Last year, Sadler produced Iroquois flag LaxStraps to help players advocate for the Iroquois Nationals’ inclusion in the 2022 World Games. His work prompted PLL Head of Player Relations and Diversity Inclusion and Redwoods LC midfielder Kyle Harrison to reach out to Sadler again when planning the “Every Child Matters” campaign.
“This cause has seemed to unify a lot of personalities and communities with a common message of support for the Indigenous communities,” Sadler added. “I feel as though we’ve done really well with supporting a good cause and raising money. It’s special to see the LaxStraps I make be used for such a good cause.”
At the time of publication, Sadler reported that more than 1,300 straps had been sold.
Yet, for Thompson and Staats, raising awareness is just the first step. As with any major social movement, Thompson explains, the key is to keep the dialogue going.
“Those uncomfortable conversations are the most important conversations. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement. The biggest lesson we can take from that is to continue to have these uncomfortable conversations so that we can understand one another as human beings and have compassion and empathy for one another. Because you really don’t know what that’s like unless you have the conversation and someone can take you into that story.”
Despite the willingness to talk about such hard-hitting topics, it doesn’t lessen the blow that Indigenous communities take when more news surrounding residential schools emerges. Residential schools existed from the 1880’s all the way until 1996 when the last residential school closed. Generations of families were cut short and forever impacted. For those who did survive, they didn’t do so without being physically and/or mentally abused or harmed.
It’s that level of trauma (in addition to other factors), that Thompson explains has contributed to extremely high suicide and substance abuse rates among Native Americans. According to the CDC, suicide rates for American Indian/Alaska Native men ages 15-24 are 2.3 times that of non-Hispanic white men. When making the same comparison among women, that rate is as high as 2.6 times more.
In regards to substance abuse, the American Addiction Centers does in fact state that, “Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, inhalant and hallucinogen use disorders compared to other ethnic groups.”
While survivors of the schools have suffered mightily, they are what make the topic of residential schools even more relevant, as there are plenty of parents or grandparents in the present day who attended such institutions — including those in Thompson’s family. And yet the education system fails to talk about them, as if it never happened.
“I’m someone who grew up in these communities, where my great grandmother went to a boarding school, Carlisle Indian residential boarding school, and my grandfather went to a residential school,” Thompson said. “And I didn’t learn about this until I was a father. I’m now able to pass it on to my kids, which is crazy to think about, knowing my grandfather went through this and I didn’t learn about it.”
In the absence of serious education on the history of abuse towards Native Americans, Thompson views larger news stories like the ones published on the residential school discoveries as a way for not only Indigenous people, but the entire world, to see what he calls “our ghosts.”
“That’s the best way to put it. Because you look at American history and we learn about what happened with African-Americans and slavery and how harsh that was — and we we learned from it, and we’re continuing to learn from that. And we learn about Nazi Germany and what happened to the Jewish people there and we’re able to see those ghosts, and see what happened to [them]. I hate to compare — but we never get to see our ghosts. We never get to learn about our ghosts… the school systems don’t put that in our history books.”
That aspect of education, or lack thereof, is what Thompson is personally looking to change in his communities, and beyond.
“My biggest mission is to get this into our schooling systems. And for me, it starts honestly, with the public schools that are sitting on reservation territory… and maybe we can get Central New York and Onondaga County to get this into the New York State curriculum and spread that message — and get it state by state,” Thompson explains.
“It starts with our youth. It starts with making sure our youth are learning about these incidents. And once you start with the youth, it grows on.”
As Staats said during a conversation with the NLL, “I realize people just don’t know. I look at it as a time to educate, which is crucial… It isn’t taught in history. It used to be a challenge for me, but I know I should speak up.”
Ultimately, Thompson and Staats want members of the lacrosse community to seek out information on these issues and be willing to educate themselves and others.
“Showing that you’re supporting, whether it’s through social media or a donation is really important. It’s really big because one, it helps to show that there’s actually people that care,” Thompson explains. “And the other thing it does is it allows for this to be viewed by more and more people that don’t necessarily see it. So I think the support is really important and it doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s something that could go a long way.”
You can help raise awareness on residential school tragedies by purchasing “Every Child Matters” LaxStraps. A portion of proceeds are given to the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), which addresses the ongoing trauma created by U.S. Indian Boarding Schools.