ACROSS AMERICA — More than a century ago, when Albert Einstein theorized that time could be bent by the collision of massive black holes and other objects in deep space, the indigenous language of the Blackfoot Nation had been all but wiped out.
No one talked much about or questioned the reason that happened: The 19th and 20th century-era policies in both Canada and the United States that plucked indigenous children from their homes and dropped them into boarding schools, often far away from the people they loved.
Ostensibly, the policies were a magnanimous effort to help children assimilate into Euro-American culture.
But people were discussing the policies in more chilling terms — "cultural genocide" — by 2015, when a team of internationally acclaimed physicists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory site in Washington state determined that Einstein was right.
And that gave LIGO communications specialist Corey Gray the idea for a parallel that, in a way, also bends time — back to a period before the policies that effectively canceled the culture of the Blackfoot Nation.
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News releases and other materials related to the discovery of the collision of two black holes that proved Einstein's theories were already being translated into multiple languages. So, Gray thought, why not include Siksika, the language of his people?
The 49-year-old Gray doesn't speak Siksika, though he grew up hearing it spoken and knew its importance to his tribe. He recruited his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, who grew up on a Siksika Nation reserve in southern Alberta, Canada, to translate the documents. She had managed to hold on to her native tongue during her years at the Crowfoot Indian Residential School.
The language "was already a part of me," Gray told Patch. "We had the opportunity with this detection — we knew it was going to make 'waves' — as an opportunity to bring attention to indigenous languages, my tribe's language."
Fermilab, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, that specializes in high-energy particle physics, hosts Corey Gray at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, in a virtual event. He'll talk about his journey connecting the Blackfoot language to gravitational wave astronomy, as well as his "top three" favorite detections at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Go here for more details and registration details.
Yellowfly held onto her native tongue against the odds.
"We went in speaking fluent Blackfoot," she told NPR in 2019, "and the purpose of this assimilation was to get rid of our language, the customs, the traditions, everything that we grew up with."
The research is clear on the effects of upending the familial structures of generations of indigenous people.
Children were robbed of both their sense of identity and their safety. Tribal communities and nations were weakened. Parents were haunted by unanswered questions. Many of their children simply vanished, with no records of what happened to them after they were taken or even where they were taken.
Another Trail Of Tears
The discovery this summer of thousands of unmarked graves near three Catholic Church-run boarding schools in Canada gives Gray and his mother a powerful megaphone to raise awareness of a buried history, compared by some to the Nazi Holocaust, that many people never knew existed.
A similar reckoning is occurring in the United States, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs modeled its boarding schools after those in Canada. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in June her department would investigate the schools and their lasting effects on the lives of Native Americans.
The history surrounding these schools is so obscure that no one knows for sure how many exist, but researchers from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition have confirmed 367 U.S-run Native American boarding schools in 29 states.
As many as 40,000 children may have died during the years they were forced to attend the schools, according to Preston McBride, a Dartmouth College scholar, who estimates the number of schools closer to 500.
McBride spoke to Reuters in June after the remains of 10 children were exhumed at the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
"This is on the order of magnitude of something like the Trail of Tears," McBride told Reuters in June, referring to the U.S. government-forced displacement of Native Americans from 1830-1850. "Yet it's not talked about."
Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band in British Columbia told CBC Radio in June the discovery of children's remains at the schools should be investigated as a war crime.
"Let's call this for what it is," Louie told CBC radio in an interview. "It's a mass murder of Indigenous people.
"The Nazis were held accountable for their war crimes. I see no difference in locating the priests and nuns and the brothers who are responsible for this mass murder to be held accountable for their part in this attempt of genocide of an Indigenous people."
Yellowfly, now 69, is stoic about her and the generations of her family's experiences at the Catholic Church-run Crowfoot Indian Residential School near Alberta, her son told Patch. She escaped what Gray called her "incarceration" when she married and moved to Southern California, where Gray grew up.
"It's a tough subject," Gray told Patch. "It's something I've not really prodded my mom about. You can tell it's a tough subject to bring up, so you only ask safe questions. You can hear it in her voice."
Other boarding school survivors have told stories of being punished when they spoke their Indigenous languages, of being stripped of traditional clothing and of having their hair cut — a particularly demoralizing act, given they were raised to associate short haircuts with captured warriors. There are stories of physical abuse, too.
No children's remains have been found on the Crowfoot School property, Gray said. However, he said it wouldn't be a surprise if they were.
"Most people know that this is probably what happened to a lot of kids, that they died trying to escape, freezing to death as they were trying to get home to their parents," Gray said. "There's no record of what happened."
In tribes today, "the generational trauma is still felt because of parents and grandparents who had that experience," said Gray, who toured the site of the former Crowfoot School his mother, uncles and grandparents attended.
"It's creepy when you're walking around," he said. "Some structures are still there, some statues are still there. The air is heavy when you are walking around."
Inspiring Future Scientists
Yellowfly's translations are a dab of healing salve.
Explaining gravitational waves in lay terms is a challenge in any case. They're like the ripples created when a pebble is thrown into a pond. They move through space-time, the fabric of the universe, after cataclysmic collisions of black holes and neutron stars smashing together.
Yellowfly recruited other family members to help with Blackfoot words that were lost to her. She coined some new ones to describe these events in deep space occurring light years in the future when the Blackfoot language was born.
She has completed 11 translations so far. There may be more. In the years since 2015 when instruments at the site in Hanford, Washington, picked up the feeble signal generated with the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago, LIGO researchers have made more than 50 similar detections.
Gray likes the harmony of "a mother and son, revitalizing Indigenous languages, tied to Albert Einstein," but also the idea that their work may inspire future scientists.
Outreach to various groups to demystify astronomical discoveries is a big part of his job at LIGO, a collaboration of international physics institutes and research groups dedicated to the search for gravitational waves.
What they detected at the site in Hanford, Washington, was a feeble signal of gravitational waves generated 1.3 billion years ago by the deep space collisions/
"We've opened up a completely different way of looking at our universe," he said. "Maybe there's going to be a kid who's going to visualize and understand the concept of space-time being bent by something that happened on the other side of the universe.
"That might spark something like Einstein's general theory of relativity."