ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In a circle and under a sage blessing, members of West Florida's indigenous community gathered for a difficult conversation about school.
“They would beat you. Give you the strap, ten times on each hand," said Marvin Melvin Wenniote Zacharie.
Zacharie is 79-year-old and says those were the conditions that he and many other indigenous children were subjected to in religious boarding schools called "residential schools."
“They didn’t want you speaking your language," he said, "A lot of kids went, a lot of kids never went home."
Zacharie attended that school from ages 6 to 16 in Canada, but he says those schools also existed in the U.S.
The Canadian government has marked September 30th as a national holiday, to reflect on the children who were abused and even died in those schools. Group members, like Marvin Zacharie's wife, Nadine, say they're hoping for that same level of acknowledgment from the U.S. government and the churches that ran those schools.
“Acknowledgment, consequences, and justice those my three words for this issue," she said.
The group that organized the event, Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE), also held a march and a vigil for the children who died in those residential schools. And they say the greater community, indigenous or not, can help them in their cause by educating themselves on the issue.
“Healing has to be done together. So if everybody's not on the same page and if everybody's not willing to take steps forward together, then true healing in this country can never really begin," said FIREE organizer Tracy Penokie.
To learn more about residential schools in Canada, click here.