In May, the world looked on in horror as a mass grave of 215 children’s remains was located using ground-penetrating radar at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. It was this circumstance that caused many people to learn about the institution of Indian residential schools, as they are called in Canada, or Indian boarding schools, as they are called here in the United States, for the first time.

The nonprofit sector is uniquely oriented toward the well-being of people and communities and the collective good of society. Yet our organizations were the scaffolding and infrastructure of boarding schools that at times voluntarily, and most often coercively, removed or even stole Native children from their families. This is a painful and pointed reminder that nonprofits’ desire to do good does not inoculate us from the racism and bias that enables us to do significant harm—both historically and today.

There is a growing movement in the U.S. to rigorously investigate and piece together this history as an important step towards truth-telling about our national history and to allow for the healing of Native people, families, and communities who have been holding the trauma of their lost children and relatives for generations.

Nonprofit organizations, and nonprofit boards in particular, have the chance to play a role in advocating for, supporting, and participating in this national opportunity for truth-telling and a full accounting of the existence and outcomes of Indian boarding schools in our country. This includes considerations about the intersectionality of tribal citizenship, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and gender, as well as a structural analysis that accounts for both the historical and contemporary manifestations and outcomes of assimilationist policies.

Nonprofits can educate themselves about the history of Indian boarding schools, the ongoing consequences of federal assimilationist policies, and the need for healing, within Native individuals, families, and communities—and as a nation. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is an excellent resource.

Nonprofits can explore the history they may have with Indian boarding schools and broader assimilation policies, including current-day federal and state child welfare policies. What role, if any, did your organization and organizational leaders have? What information and records, if any, do you have access to about lands, schools, student rosters, and student deaths? What land do you have access to? How can you contribute to the efforts to piece together this history in all its full and painful detail? How can you participate in this truth-telling process and contribute to the healing? What ability do you have to advocate for the establishment of the Truth and Healing Commission; to educate others, including your constituents, about this movement; and to promote the deeper, thoughtful engagement in our country toward the possibility of healing our divides?

Read more on about Indigenous boarding schools by Sarah Kastelic and Anne Wallestad at BoardSource.