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Randy Staats Reflects on the History and Tragedy of Residential Schools

Describes perseverance of Indigenous peoples and encourages education


The one-word Randy Staats used to summarize the role of Residential Schools throughout North America.

The NLL sat down with Staats to learn more about the role of Residential Schools within North America and the ongoing effects stemming from this horrendous program within the Native American population.

June is Indigenous History Month in Canada and June of 2021 could not have gotten off to a worse start than the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried at a Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia.

The tragic news from Western Canada demonstrates the ongoing problems facing the Indigenous populations and their relationship with the Canadian and United States governments. Education systems today do not teach children about what these programs were or cover in depth the ongoing tumultuous relationships between European colonizers and the Indigenous populations over hundreds of years. One cannot blame individuals for not knowing, but Staats wants to make sure that future generations hear what truly happened, to learn from it, and to make the world a better place.

“The Kamloops story has really brought this to light and with Turtle Island Lacrosse it is something I try to talk about. I know when you asked if I had any topics in mind for Indigenous History Month, this topic immediately came to mind because I think it had the biggest effect on us as people. Knowing the history itself and not the whitewashed version of it, seeing it from our perspective; there is a lot of value in that being a human being.”

Staats went on to share what Residential Schools were. “Residential Schools were a place for Native Americans to conform to white society. These were schools run by the Catholic church and funded by the government that basically beat us until we forgot about our culture.”

The oppression of Indigenous peoples dates back to the very first settlers who crossed the ocean, but the federal funding of these schools started in the late 19th century. It was required at the time for Native American children to be educated according to Anglo-American standards and were most often sent to these boarding schools for the majority of the year and away from their family. Brothers and sisters were separated while at the schools too.

The conditions were horrifying as Staats mentioned, “It was basically hell. They cut the children’s traditional hair; dress “normally” made our people pray to something that is so foreign to our traditional beliefs. Our people were treated like animals with manipulation and sexual abuse. They did everything to make it so we didn’t practice our traditional ways. The saying is ‘kill the Indian and save the man’, …it is a very powerful statement that happened over hundreds of years. The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] would take kids away from their home to get them at a young age to prevent them from learning their true culture and heritage.” It was a cultural genocide.

The tragic and relatively unknown piece around this system is that this type of abuse did not end long ago, the last Residential School closed 25 years ago in 1996.

For Staats and many Indigenous people, the effects of these programs are still widespread.

“I’ve had family members who went to residential schools. It obviously wasn’t the greatest situation for them, there was a lot of abuse and mistreatment. A lot of elders who went to these schools don’t really talk about it and I understand why….it is something that has affected them so traumatically that they would want to forget and never remember it. It was probably something unimaginable.”

“On my dad’s side, my grandmother went to a Residential School. On my mom’s side, my great grandfather and grandmother went to a Residential School. It is not that talked about, and my mom’s dads’ side of the family basically had to run away from that and fit into white society without others knowing they were native to escape from going to Residential School.”

“I think a reason for them not wanting to talk about their experience is the fear of being punished or abused for speaking your mind and for being who you are. Why would they want to talk about it and bring up those horrifying memories? If I was put in those shoes, I would be scared and afraid to talk about it. I think it has an effect on our people to this day with things like depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and mental health. This stuff is not just one generation. There are generational effects to this day. Kids learn from their parents and so on and I think these effects have affected poverty and other issues.”

Staats mentioned that there is a former Residential School located only 15 minutes from his house.

Part of the issue is, we still do not know the full extent of what actually occurred with these schools and more information is always coming out. Kamloops brought the story into the light once again and the response has been a feeling of mixed emotions.

“The Kamloops story is tragic and makes my heart hurt. It makes me wonder how many other places exist like that. When you find any person hurt or see someone hurt, it makes me want to help, and do anything I can to make them feel better. But when you find children and babies remains, it is completely and utterly disgusting. I don’t know how to say it without getting frustrated and sad. Those kids were victims of the system. It should have never happened in the first place.”

“Looking through social media I see people lowering the flags and speaking out. It isn’t just Indigenous people; it is people of all races. The more people read and see what happened is good, but it is one of those things that is hard to fathom in a sense because you wouldn’t wish that upon anyone”

It took until 2008 for the Canadian government to formally make any apology for the system they created and even still, many do not think their response has been enough. In 2007, the Canadian government formalized a $1.9 billion compensation package for survivors of the Residential School system. Survivors who accept this Common Experience Payment release the Canadian government and churches from any further liability relating to the Residential School systems abuse except for cases of sexual abuse and “serious incidents of physical abuse”.

“It’s great and all [that they apologized] but you can’t put a Band-Aid over it. I haven’t seen anything shedding light on the history of it. I do not think they have done enough, there is still more they can do. I think bringing awareness or trying to provide opportunities for survivors to share their stories is something we need. Those experiences are unforgettable.”

“I don’t think we are looking for handouts. I don’t think we have ever been heard before in history; we’ve always been looked down upon. We have never been able to share our thoughts and ambitions. For us as people, we just want to talk about the truth of these institutions. We have a great opportunity to hear those stories and learn from them.”

Recently, the Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear was scrutinized and received racist comments after their playoff series loss in May 2021. It is something that Staats said is not uncommon for Indigenous athletes to hear.

“I did repost Ethan’s response and tried to bring awareness because he is not the only player who has felt racism as a Native athlete. You see Connor McDavid and those guys who stand behind him and amplify that message. I’ve dealt with racist comments and being on an indigenous team I’ve felt that pain before.”

One of the major issues Staats believes causes this behavior is the unfair stereotypes of Native peoples as well as a lack of education. These untrue stereotypes include that Indigenous people live in areas where they are unable to be educated. It is unlit, lacking electricity or the lands do not have the proper facilities to raise people who can contribute to the greater world.

“Speaking about our lives is the number one thing to allow people to understand where we come from and who we are. Like why and how did Native Americans end up on reservations? One thing that is interesting was I used to get mad when people asked me those questions about if I have electricity or do you live in a Teepee, but as I get older, I realize people just don’t know. I look at it as a time to educate, which is crucial. How are they ever going to know if they don’t know. It isn’t taught in history. It used to be a challenge for me but I know I should speak up.”

In 2013, a new holiday was created to honor and support the victims of the Residential School system called Orange Shirt Day or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The day is annually held on September 30th. The day was inspired by Phyllis Jack Webstad who was six was sent away from her family to a Residential School. Her grandmother had just gotten her a shiny new orange shirt to wear to school. Once she got to the school, the administers took her orange shirt and gave her a uniform. She never saw the orange shirt again. Today, Webstad is 54 years old.

For Staats, a five-year NLL veteran with the Georgia Swarm, who has two daughters who are 3 and 11 months old, it brings real emotions when discussing the schools. “That’s chilling, could have been one or both of my daughters being taken away from us. It’s terrifying to know she was 6 years old, that’s gut-wrenching.”

During the first week of the recent Premier Lacrosse League season, Staats wore his orange “Every Child Matters” t-shirt. “My goal was to raise awareness about what had happened at Kamloops. If anyone has questions about it, it gives me opportunity to teach people the real history.”

Recognition for the Indigenous community one month out of the year will not solve the problems they face in terms of systematic racism resulting in much higher levels of poverty, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, suicide rates, and more.

“I’m not native one month out of the year and I take pride in that. I think we should be doing something that sheds light on our culture on who we are and the positive things. If you look at our history and teachings, there is a lot of positive outlooks on life and how to be as a person and those things are so beautiful to me. One of the things I appreciate and love the most is that we are still here, and we are still having a voice and bringing this to light.”

Lacrosse has allowed Randy Staats to share his message and educate people all over the world his story as well as the stories of his people. Staats advice for those wanting to make an impact during Indigenous History Month is to listen, learn, and be empathetic. Ask the questions with the sincere hope of bettering yourself and the others around you. Visit the sites where the Residential Schools are to understand what the experiences were like, many are still open and are run as educational facilities for the victims and survivors.

“No one likes to feel bad, but in reality, sometimes the truth hurts. Whether you like it or not, you can’t run from the history of what happened at those places.”

Update as of June 24, 2021: It was announced that 751 more unidentified bodies were discovered in unmarked graves at a different Residential School located in southeastern Saskatchewan on the site of the Marieval Indian residential school. It is the “most significantly substantial to date”. It is not immediately clear yet whether the remains are connected with the Residential School.

US Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, announced on June 23, 2021, that the federal government will investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools. The work will look to review records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burials sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students.