WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A southwestern Manitoba First Nation connected with visitors from Colombia this weekend to better inform its ongoing research into unmarked graves at a former residential school.
Sioux Valley Dakota Nation hosted delegates from the Committee for the Rights of the Victims of Bojayá on Saturday for an event at Brandon University called “Knowledge Exchange: Conversations about Community-Led Exhumations, Identification, and Final Burial in Bojayá, Colombia.”
In May 2002, 102 people — including at least 48 children — were killed at the Apostle Catholic Church in Bojayá, Colombia. At the time, army officials said fighting broke out between the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and rival right-wing paramilitary groups.
The church wasn’t thought to have been intentionally targeted, as the fighters were using homemade mortars that were highly inaccurate.
The exchange with the visitors from the Bojayá committee, which works to identify unmarked graves from the massacre in Colombia, created an opportunity to share pain, healing and knowledge, said Sioux Valley Dakota Nation elder and residential school survivor Lorraine Pompana.
“This is so, so, so close to home for me as a survivor … what we’re trying to do to heal,” she said. “I think we can go anywhere in the world and share this story because there are Indigenous peoples all over the world.”
Learning from mass burials
Sioux Valley, located about 50 kilometres west of Brandon, began its unmarked grave project more than a decade ago, and is working to identify children who died at the Brandon Residential School while it was in operation from 1895 to 1972 in southwestern Manitoba.
Pompana said they shared knowledge and culture to better inform how both groups identify unmarked graves while protecting their communities.
Committee member Leyner Palacios said through a translator that the killing of the Bojayá people forced mass burials in the community, which destroyed the traditional funeral rights of victims and caused deep pain for families.
He said that was difficult because the community wanted truth and to give those killed proper burial rituals. The situation was further complicated because Palacios said it often felt like the institutions that were supposed to help were lying to them.
This led to the creation of the Committee for the Rights of the Victims of Bojayá to ensure those killed were identified and given proper burials. The goal was to help families find the truth, justice and reconciliation after the massacre.
In 2017, a community-led exhumation of the bodies began. Over two years, the committee and forensic experts identified as many people as possible, and gave them proper burial rituals as a form of healing for the community.
‘Forensics of care’: Riaño-Alcalá
Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, who originally hails from Colombia but now teaches at the University of British Columbia on the issues of memory and violence, documented this journey.
The driving force of the project was finding the balance between culture, families and the scientific process of identifying those placed in unmarked graves, she said.
“I called it the forensics of care … Scientists think that you don’t need the spiritual, nor the caring, nor the emotional and relational component,” Riaño-Alcalá said.
“On the contrary, if you are going to do science, particularly in this context of violence, systemic violence, colonial and racist violence, you do need to bring all of them into dialogue, otherwise you are not doing good science.”
These experiences of violence are shared universally across many Indigenous communities around the world, Riaño-Alcalá said, but the pain of these losses is unique to each community.
“It’s finding connection through pain, but through ceremony too,” she said. “It’s not the same experience, but there is something that connects us.”
Building a relationship with Sioux Valley is meaningful because both groups are using community, ancestral knowledge and science to guide their searches, she said.
Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia do not have the same level of self-government and autonomy as some First Nation communities in Canada, Riaño-Alcalá said, which impacts the exhumation of graves.
She says there is also not the same level of acknowledgement of what happened in Colombia as there is in Canada, which makes fostering international allies and partnerships crucial.
Katherine Nichols, manager of the Sioux Valley Missing Children Project, hopes they can build some new networks internationally that can work together and exchange information.
“It’s something that we’ve always looked to globally to see how other communities, families and countries have … recovered,” Nichols said.
“There are definitely very similar trends, But what we’ll find, I think across Canada, is that schools will have had affected different communities and it’s important to our investigation at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation that we make sure that the families and the survivors of those represented communities lead the way and have a voice in what happens next.”
The First Nation, which owns the land where the residential school once stood, wants to identify all children who died there. They’ve identified 104 potential graves in three cemeteries, but only 78 are accounted for through historical records.
Even though Colombia is thousands of kilometres away, Pompana says it has been powerful to connect and learn from their shared experiences. She hopes further exchanges like this take place since it benefits everyone involved.
“It’s good to share about what each community is doing for this important project. And by doing this today, I certainly jotted [down] important stuff that we also need to consider.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.