Six Nations outpouring of sorrow at former Mohawk Institute Residential School

Community vigil places 215 moccasins on former school steps to honour student graves uncovered in Kamloops

The bodies of 215 children were found via ground-penetrating radar in a large unmarked gravesite at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia last week, a horrifying revelation that has sent shockwaves across the country and around the world.

Here at home, Six Nations is in mourning, with numerous memorials and vigils held over the past few days to honour the children, their families, and all residential school survivors.

Over 500 people turned out for an afternoon vigil and moment of silence on Sunday at Woodland Cultural Centre, formerly the Mohawk Institute Residential School. The event was organized by Haudenosaunee Grassroots Mamas while on Monday, the Six Nations Veterans Association lowered the flags to half-mast at Veterans Park in Ohsweken.

Sunday’s vigil saw hundreds of people from Six Nations, Brantford, Hamilton, and beyond fill the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, also known as The Mush Hole, where many Six Nations children were forced to attend until it closed down in 1970.

Many of the children who attended the Mohawk Institute are alive today.

Sherlene Bomberry, 65, tearfully told the gathering of her experiences at the Mush Hole, saying the recent discovery opened wounds from her time at the Mohawk Institute.

“I heard those little girls crying up there,” she told the crowd, the big, red brick building that housed her childhood memories behind her.

All these years, she said, she spoke of her time at the residential school but she was emotionally numb to the memories.  News of the children’s graves triggered her in a way she never felt before.

“I’ve talked about this before but I never had emotions about it. I was emotionally numb. But with this now, I felt it.”

Char Hemlock, spokesperson for the Haudenosaunee Grassroots Mamas, said, “What happened out west called to every mother and grandmother to come today to offer respects and demand justice. We need change now if we are ever to move forward with respectful relationships.”

Attendees placed 215 pairs of moccasins on the steps of the Woodland Cultural Centre. The moccasins were then brought home to Six Nations as a procession of runners, bikers and vehicles made their way from the Mohawk Institute to Chiefswood Park.

Rhonda Martin, one of the organizers of the vigil, said carrying the moccasins home from the Mohawk Institute was a symbolic way of bringing the children home where they belong. The moccasins were gathered at Chiefswood Park after the 19 km journey and will be placed in a memorial display at Woodland Cultural Centre.

On Monday, the mood was sombre as the Six Nations Veterans Association lowered the Canadian flag, American flag, British flag, and Haudenosaunee flag at Veterans Park in the heart of Ohsweken, while cities around the country also lowered flags to honour the 215 children.

Elected Chief Mark Hill said the discovery re-opened old wounds for Indigenous people.

“Our heart breaks for the community of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, who are most intimately affected by this indescribable sorrow. With the devastating discovery…people around the world were reminded of the injustices our communities continue to face. Communities across Canada and around the world share your collective grief.”

Chief Hill called on the federal government to help Six Nations find missing children from residential schools they attended, with a pointed call to provide ground-penetrating radar to search the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute for any possible hidden graves.

“At Six Nations, this has been a renewal of grief for us, and especially, for our survivors. We also had our children taken away to a residential school in Brantford: the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, also known as The Mush Hole.”

Survivors of the Mohawk Institute nicknamed it “The Mush Hole” in reference to the bland and stiff porridge the children were forced to eat every day, with many recounting stories of mental, physical, cultural and sexual abuse at the hands of clergy and staff who ran the school.

Chief Hill said residential schools were created with the aim, “to change us as part of an aggressive assault on our culture. We stand in sadness for this crime against our families, our culture and our human rights and our identities as distinct peoples. Those children in B.C. are our children. Those families in B.C. are our families. And those communities in B.C. are our communities. We cannot overstate our solidarity with them. We are still here, we are still strong, and we are still resilient and we will not stop being who we are.”

Residential school survivor Tony Bomberry, who attended the Mohawk Institute from grade one to three before it closed in 1970, said he used his experience as a survivor to be a better person for his children.

“I put a block on that stage in my life,” said Bomberry.

He said his mother used to walk from Six Nations to Brantford to visit him at the Mohawk Institute.

He remembers running to the window on the third floor of the school to watch his mother leave after visiting hours wrapped up at 6 p.m., walking down the long, tree-lined drive of the grounds, with Bomberry yelling aloud to himself, “where are you going?” not understanding that he was meant to stay at the school and not go home with her.

With his daughter Angelina by his side, he briefly choked up before he told the crowd at Veterans Park that if anything, the discovery should propel adults to respect the youth and support them in everything they do.

“It was very tough. I had my brother there, I had my three sisters with me. In a sense, that helped. But it’s like a prison. It’s like a prison for kids. It was tough, yeah. I think the biggest thing I learned from it was, I was shown a bad way of life and I promised myself and my family they would never have to go through that.”


Editor’s Note: The coverage of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc student gravesite is a traumatic news story that may be triggering for some readers. If you need to talk about this there is help available locally. The Six Nations Crisis Line is open for support at 1-866-445-2204, as is the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419. 

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