It’s Memorial Day here in America. This holiday was started to commemorate the sacrifices made by Union soldiers during the American Civil War. This means the holiday was designed to remember Americans who were killed at the hands of other Americans. Today I want to remember another group of Americans who were killed at the hands of other Americans: Native American children.
When I was in Albuquerque in April, in the days after my father’s death, I made time to visit a park near my sister’s home. In the 1970s, this park was intentionally built over the cemetery associated with the Albuquerque Indian School (which I wrote about last year). A number of Native American children died at the school because of disease epidemics, but exact figures aren’t known because arson destroyed many of the nearby school buildings and records after the school closed in 1981.
Although a bronze plaque commemorating this area as a cemetery was installed at some point, it was stolen in January 2019 and presumably melted down for the metal (as there was a rash of thefts of bronze plaques during this time). The plaque has not been replaced.
In recent years, commemoration has taken the form of gaudy plastic orange fencing surrounding part of the park along with a large pine tree (pictured above) covered in memorial flags and stuffed animals. A sign acknowledges the location of the cemetery, requests visitors to “respect this sacred site,” and declares that Albuquerque is “listening to Pueblo and Tribal leaders, as well as the broader community, to plan the future of this site.”
I grieve the fact that when I lived nearby a child, a park was built over the cemetery—as if to hide or deny its existence. I’m grateful that attention is being paid to this issue today. What I’ve learned and discussed in our church’s antiracism discussion group has sensitized me to how inhumanly the first Americans were treated by later settlers like my ancestors. We have a long way to go in making amends for the deaths of millions of Americans (estimates range from five to twenty million) at the hands of other Americans.
On this Memorial Day, I invite you to join me in grieving all the children who died during enforced detention and re-education at facilities like this—most of them run by “good Christian” leaders. Then consider what you could do to make a difference in the lives of Native Americans in your communities today—and commit to taking action on at least one option in the next month.