A statue of an Anishinaabe grandmother stands about 8 feet tall in the heart of the University of Minnesota Morris campus. A small boy wearing an American Indian boarding school uniform clutches the grandmother’s side while a little girl hides behind her, showing her reluctance to join the boy at the school.

The sculpture was installed in 2018 as a reminder of this site’s dark history. Decades before the U’s Morris campus opened in 1960, a boarding school that separated Native American children from their families and tried to forcibly assimilate them into white culture stood in its place.

Some of the children who attended the boarding school died there, and research suggests it is possible they were buried on or near what is now the Morris campus.

Recent discoveries of mass graves at former boarding school sites in Canada have prompted Native American students at the Morris campus to demand a search at their school. More than 4,000 people signed a student-led petition this month in support of a Morris campus search, which they say is an essential step for the university to confront and heal from its history.

“It’s a burden — emotionally, mentally, spiritually,” Dylan Young, co-chair of the university’s Circle of Nations Indigenous Association, said of learning at a campus where children might be buried. “This is something that the university has to confront.”

Morris leaders say they do not shy away from their campus’ history. The university has publicly acknowledged it, held ceremonies centered on truth telling and healing and recently joined the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. But administrators are not yet committing to search the campus because questions remain about the graves’ whereabouts and existence.

“I think this is a very difficult issue for everyone involved,” said Janet Schrunk Ericksen, acting chancellor of the U’s Morris campus. “It is an issue that we want to handle with as much compassion and as much collaboration as we can.”

The discussion in Morris coincides with growing national awareness of the trauma inflicted during the boarding school era. After the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in June a federal investigation into possible student burial sites at or near the locations where American Indian boarding schools operated.

The Morris boarding school was one of 16 that operated in Minnesota and among hundreds in the U.S. It was founded in 1887 by the Sisters of Mercy community of the Catholic Church, who ran the school for a decade until the federal government took over operations.

Tribes regularly objected to some of the Morris boarding school’s practices, which included extending students’ terms, refusing to release them for vacation and sending staff to forcibly bring back students who left, according to research archived by the Minnesota Historical Society.

After the federal government took control of the school, there were accusations that staff, and even the superintendent, sexually abused some of the children.

The government closed the school in 1909 and transferred ownership of its campus and buildings to the state of Minnesota with the stipulation that Native American students be admitted tuition-free into future educational institutions built there. That policy is still honored today by the University of Minnesota Morris, the only U campus to offer tuition waivers to Native American students.

Unknown graves?

In 2018, archival research conducted by Morris students and faculty suggested that between three and seven children who died at the boarding school may have been buried on or near the present-day campus. They found no documentation that the children’s remains were returned to their parents.

However, follow-up research from other students and faculty did not find evidence that such graves existed, according to the university. As a result, Morris administrators are not certain a cemetery exists. If it does, they have not been able to determine its location or whether any remains are still buried there.

Students and tribal leaders say the university has a responsibility to find out. The petition created by two Native American students, Young and fellow Circle of Nations Indigenous Association co-chair Claudia Iron Hawk, calls on the university to hire an Indigenous ground-penetrating radar specialist to search the grounds for unmarked graves. That technology was used to discover the graves in Canada.

Instead of waiting for the U.S. Interior Department’s investigation, which Morris leaders have said they will comply with, Iron Hawk said the university should take the lead on a potential search in collaboration with tribal nations.

“That would take … the emotional burden off of Native students who are mainly here to get a degree and not have to also face intergenerational trauma,” Iron Hawk said.

Search the campus?

Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said she also thinks the university should search its campus — if that is what the affected tribes want.

The university has contacted those most impacted by the boarding school, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, about working together on the issue moving forward, Ericksen said. No meetings have occurred yet. “We want to make sure that when we do it, they want us to do it,” Ericksen said of a potential search.

It is a process that will take time to do right, administrators say. Sandra Olson-Loy, Morris’ vice chancellor for student affairs, noted that Canada has been reckoning with its boarding school history for more than a decade. A “truth and reconciliation” commission it established in 2008 cataloged evidence for years before new technology was used to find the burial sites.

In the meantime, university leaders will continue research into the school’s past and discussions with students and employees. The university will hold its third annual truth telling and healing ceremony in November.

“We really would welcome the chance to … be a model for how truth telling and greater understanding can happen,” Olson-Loy said.

Julia Scovil, undergraduate student body president at the Morris campus, said the university will eventually need to move beyond public statements and healing ceremonies.

“If Morris doesn’t search the school, I think that all of those past actions and words have really been done in vain,” Scovil said.