Rain was in the forecast Tuesday but it held off long enough, at least at the Regina Indian Industrial School cemetery, for a small group to spend a couple of hours tidying up the gravesite in accordance with Assiniboine custom.
The grass around the site was mowed and raked, and the tobacco ties, teddy bears and children’s shoes people have laid there over the last few months were gathered.
Those gifts will later be burned ceremonially, as an offering to the children who lay beneath the cemetery’s 38 feather-like grave markers.
“We’re commemorating the site, paying homage and honour to the children who attended the school,” Sarah Longman, who helped organized the cleanup, told Global News.
Longman, who is co-chair of the Regina Indian Industrial Residential School Commemorative Association, said practicing the ritual on National Indigenous Peoples Day added honour.
“I think it’s absolutely important to celebrate all of our collective history as Canadians. National Aboriginal Day is a day to celebrate our heritage, our culture and our history ,” Longman said.
“Part of our history is the legacy of Indian residential schools in Saskatchewan and across Canada. The cemeteries that are being uncovered throughout Canada are a reminder that we need to go back and relearn our history and understand what it’s all about.”
The occasion is known as a “Flower Day,” said Assiniboine Knowledge Keeper Wazi Amba Ohazi (Sun Cloud).
“It’s an annual event we have in our communities,” Wazi Amba Ohazi said.
“It’s basically a cleaning of the graves. Looking after our ancestors where they lie. We clean the graves, cut the grass, put new flowers on. And then we have a feast after.”
The feast, Wazi Amba Ohazi explained, involves the preparation of foods those being honoured were fond of. A bowl of that food, called a spirit dish, is prepared for the deceased as an offering for prayer and then placed in a special location.
“In our culture the poplar tree is a tree of life and we often put that dish beneath them,” he explained.
“It’s a tradition that’s been with our people for a long time, recognizing the spirit world our ancestors go to after they leave this world.”
Wicahnpi Mani (Walking Star), who is Wazi Amba Ohazi’s son and has done extensive research on Saskatchewan’s residential schools, told Global News Regina Indian Industrial School was established in 1891 and stood about five-and-a-half kilometres from downtown Regina.
Funded by the federal government, it was run by the Presbyterian Church and operated for 19 years.
“When the doors opened, not only children from the 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, but also children from Alberta and Manitoba were sent there,” Wicahnpi Man said.
Nearly a decade ago, the Regina Indian Industrial Residential School Commemorative Association began organizing exploratory work at the cemetery site which included ground-penetrating radar.
The grave markers were installed last year.
Longman told Global News that, moving forward, the association hopes to continue work on the site, potentially adding benches and making it more accessible.