Jun. 3—As a student at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Allen Retasket Sr. was a skinny little kid who wasn’t strong enough to carry a bench he was told to move. He dropped it and the sound echoed through the room.
The punishment was severe, the Wenatchee man said Wednesday during a gathering on the west lawn of Legends Casino Hotel.
“When I was in second grade, I was beaten into submission … It went on for 4 to 5 minutes. I was beaten so bad I have a scar here,” Retasket said, gesturing at his head. He was kicked in the stomach and half his left lung collapsed, he added.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia said the remains of 215 children were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School last month through ground-penetrating radar. Some of the children were as young as 3. The discovery has brought back the profound horrors of life there, the abuse and the trauma of all the girls and boys forced away from their loved ones and their culture.
‘It hurts our hearts’
Retasket spoke during a remembrance event in Toppenish led by his nephew, Johnny Casper, a familiar face at Legends Casino. Casper grew up in Kamloops, and still has family there. He couldn’t go home to be with his family and wanted to show support and solidarity for the children who died at the school, which was open from 1893 to 1978.
Casper asked Jon Olney Shellenberger and his wife, Emily Washines, and others to help organize a gathering Wednesday morning. It came together quickly because they wanted to hold it before a sacred fire that burned for four days in remembrance of the children was extinguished.
“When things like this happen, it hurts our hearts. Every one is a loss,” Shellenberger said as he stood by several pairs of children’s shoes and teddy bears.
A large heart comprised of 215 solar lights covered the grass nearby. Many of the more than three dozen people attending took the shoes and bears and placed them by the lights, which will stay up for two weeks. The shoes and bears will then be donated.
More than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century through the 1970s as a part of a program to assimilate them into Canadian society. A similar boarding school system was in place in the United States for Native children.
Casper’s father and all his siblings are survivors, Casper said. His dad, Daniel Casper, was at the Kamloops school from 1950-59. He never really spoke about the school until several years ago.
“It was heartbreaking to hear what my dad endured at the school. When the news broke, that could have been my dad” who died there, Johnny Casper said.
Retasket was at at Kamloops Indian Residential School from 1956-63. He still has issues with food. They were so hungry, he said.
“The best way to describe it and what it feels like is you’re in a situation where it’s totally hopeless,” Retasket said. “There’s nowhere to turn, no one to support you. Most of you may never have experienced that.
“The loneliness was the second thing, and some of the grief,” he added. Seeing their parents cry as they left, some children felt they caused that, he said.
He mentioned a student accused of theft being forced to take off his clothes and bend over a table to be beaten by a leather razor strop. Retasket knows of other incidents that weren’t appropriate to recall before a group that included children, but said he would share privately.
All the while, the children had to attend Catholic church services nearly every day.
“They were indoctrinating us. They wanted to capture our spirits,” Retasket said. “They got most of us.”
‘They won’t be wandering’
He and HollyAnna Littlebull were among several people who shared their own or loved ones’ memories of attending boarding schools.
Littlebull is the adopted daughter of Delphine Terbasket, a Kamloops school survivor. Terbasket died years ago and she wanted to speak about her Wednesday “so that her story will never be forgotten and someday, somebody will be held accountable,” Littlebull said.
She mentioned a boy known at the boarding school as Runaway Pete. The former U.S. Army installation near White Swan had a government-run boarding school for Native children from 1860 to 1922.
He ran away using the same route every time, Littlebull said, and school authorities caught him over and over. They didn’t realize he was training to run away for good. He was scouting the route from White Swan to Toppenish because he knew he would have to go that far.
She was glad the children who died at Kamloops are being honored in public ceremonies and more private gatherings.
“After this ceremony they’ll be OK. They won’t be wandering,” she said. “Maybe there will be some forgiveness and now, healing.”
Maxine Janis, an associate professor and the president’s liaison for Native American Affairs at Heritage University, is Lakota. She attended a mission school — then Holy Rosary Mission, now Red Cloud Indian School — before going to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.
“I can recall as a young child seeing some things,” Janis said. She remembers running away, nuns hitting children’s fingers with a ruler and boys being beaten.
Janis was about 11 years old when the children at choir practice were especially antsy one day. The Catholic brother who was leading practice angrily chastised them.
“You kids better behave. You’re all a bunch of sluts,” she recalled him telling the children. They didn’t know what “slut” meant and asked about it.
“I feel like I repressed a lot of those memories. … This took me back to a place I hadn’t been in years,” Janis said.
She and others thanked the organizers, the casino and the Yakama Nation for holding Wednesday’s event. Though it was difficult for her and others to share, it was important.
“We need to wipe our tears and honor these children and all who have had these experiences,” she said.
Reach Tammy Ayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.