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Miss Cherokee To Host Walk In Honor Of Indigenous Children Who Died At Residential Schools

Courtesy of Tribal Council
Amy West says her great grandmother attended Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

News of over 1,000 unmarked graves of children found at an indigenous residential school in Canada hit home for members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

This year’s ‘Miss Cherokee’ Amy West requested support from Tribal Council this month for an event in honor of the children found at places like the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia.

“That’s 1500 tribal members, children and speakers that our community has lost. This hits very close to home with me,” West said during the meeting.  

West says her great grandmother attended Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. This school is well-known as the first Native American boarding school founded by Col. Richard Pratt whose motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” 

There are 186 marked graves on the grounds of students who died while attending the school, according to the Carlisle Indian School Project.  

The Canadian schools were modeled after Carlisle. Although, Canada changed the model by contracting the management of the schools to the Catholic Church. Children who were forced to attend had their hair cut, were given English names and were not allowed to speak their native languages.

“Just knowing that my grandmother went to Carlisle  and they found a grave there that is unmarked – that could have been any of us,” said West, who was also Miss Cherokee in 2019.

The search for unmarked graves in Canada follow’s the county’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It started in 2007, and a year later Canada formally apologized for its implementation of residential schools. This started after a class action lawsuit was brought forward by those impacted.

In the United States, there isn’t an accurate count of similar schools, children who attended, or deaths.  There are thought to be over 350 schools attended by tens of thousands of children.

West hopes to bring attention to this issue:

“I just thought that this was something that I could do to at least honor them get the word out. Because this is important. Not many schools besides Carlisle have been searched in the United States,” said West.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It will look at the legacy of federal boarding school policies and the hundreds of thousands of children who were taken – including Haaland’s own grandparents. A report is expected next year.

The Every Child Matters walk organized by West will take place on July 31st in Cherokee.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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