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Ceremony at site of former western Manitoba residential school fulfils wish of late Dakota elder

Indigenous children who were forced to attend a residential school in Elkhorn, Man., were honoured in a ceremony this week.

The ceremony on Monday at the site of the former school, which operated in the southwestern Manitoba community from 1889 to 1949, was hosted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. Garrison Settee, the advocacy organization’s grand chief, was among the small group who attended the ceremony.

“In our cultural beliefs, we believe that in order to set these children’s spirits free, we have to go back,” said Ken Whitecloud, an elder and former chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. 

“We have to feed them. We have to say, ‘welcome home.'”

Whitecloud said the ceremony included music, prayers, a sacred fire, offerings and a feast at the site of the former school. At least 26 children are known to have died at the school, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

A plaque honours children buried at the site of the former Elkhorn residential school. (Submitted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak)

Whitecloud said hosting a ceremony at the school was one of the wishes of the late Doris Pratt, a well-known elder from Sioux Valley. 

Pratt attended the school as a young girl. She later went on to write several books to help youth in her community translate Dakota to English. 

She died in March 2019 at the age of 83. 

The ceremony was sombre, Whitecloud said.

“I mean, it’s a sad occasion in one aspect, but it’s also nice to have fulfilled Doris Pratt’s [wish].” 

Whitecloud said his mother also attended the school as a child. That was something his family, like many in his community, never spoke about, he said.

“I wasn’t that aware of the residential school [system],” Whitecloud said. “I was aware of them, I was aware as to what happened. But the stories that are coming out now, it’s just some horror stories.” 

He said as Canadians learn more about the legacy of the residential school system and the harm it caused, he hopes more people pause and reflect. 

“It’s important because they’ve got to have some empathy toward what happened,” said Whitecloud. “I hear comments of, ‘Oh yeah, get over it … that was a long time ago,'” he said.

“But no, it’s your forefathers.” 

He hopes similar ceremonies can be held at the sites of other former residential schools in Manitoba, including the former school in Birtle, which is also in the southwestern Manitoba region. 

“We believe in the spirit of the children and that they have to be fed, and [we have to] let them know that they haven’t been forgotten.”


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