We Wish to Call You by Your Name

August 06, 2021

News Type:  Director's Corner

Stories about missing children have been told by families for generations. If you are not familiar with the federal government’s sanction and control of American Indian and Alaska Native residential boarding schools, you may not have put together that the recent news stories of unidentified graves at residential boarding schools are connected to those federally sanctioned and controlled schools. Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania is probably the most notable of those schools and has a small cemetery where both identified and unidentified headstones are visible from the main entrance. 

Starting in the early 1860s and rapidly expanding until the 1980s, the federal government’s Indian boarding schools were under the governance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Due to the mismanagement of trustee funds that resulted in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education was established to continue the oversight of education, including residential campuses and day schools located in 17 states. In several locations across American Indian reservation lands, the federal government allowed church-based school to replace government-run facilities. Reservations were divided up by various churches—Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, etc. The outcome for children in church-run schools were not any different than for federally run schools.  

For generations, families have shared stories of children being removed by federal or church authorities and taken to those schools. Parents did not have the option of keeping their children in the home. It was a requirement that children attend the school selected by the church or government. Many of those children never returned home. Parents were never told what happened to their children. Now, the revelation that hundreds of unidentified remains have been discovered at seven boarding schools (at the time of this writing) has generated the retelling of those family stories and has also confirmed why so much pain, sorrow, loss, and grief exist within American Indian and Alaska Native families. 

Historical trauma, intergenerational grief, and ancestral pain combined with poverty, institutional racism, discrimination, and displacement has created the conditions for suicide and self-injury to be the broken journey toward burying those who have no name. Not having a name to identify in the remains produces a broken heart, since the giving of a name and renaming is a critical cultural placement of oneself in this world. A name is important since that name can be considered one’s spiritual name to allow for ceremony and communication. Not having a name can mean you have no relatives. Yet, the desire to bring relatives home is as basic as breathing for many of our tribes. Tribes will be embracing those unknown remains. Tribes have had prior experience in ceremonially reclaiming unknown remains. It is a new practice that no one wished to have the need for. Now, there is a big need. 

A long held understanding and teaching that was practiced frequently but disrupted by boarding school policy and other forms of child displacement is the calling of a person’s name to bring them home. There was a belief that a person is called four times by their name. The body-mind-spirit-heart connection has been understood for centuries within Indigenous cultures. Therefore, to call a person by their name four times is to acknowledge them and their presence in this world, their sense of themselves, their connection to their spiritual pathway, and their connection to their family.

As we remember those who are not known by their name, they were prayed for by relatives, they are part of the 7th generation circles, they may not be known explicitly to any one of us, but they did have a name at one time. May we remember to call our relatives back by our relationship to them—cousins, sister, brother, grandfather, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, sons and daughters, and grandchildren. 

May this acknowledgement and recognition help in the healing process so that this current generation and future generations of American Indian and Alaska Native children and youth gain strength and resilience and not chose suicide to erase their pain and sorrow. May you know that we wish to call you by your name and by your relationship as a human being with a spiritual connection to many relatives and acknowledge your presence in this world. Please know that we care about you.

Dolores Subia BigFoot, PhD

Presidential Professor

SPRC Co-Director

Center on Child Abuse and Neglect

Indian Country Child Trauma Center

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center