Indigenous leaders push for boarding school commission

Marie-Annette Pember

Sometimes there are moments in history that mark the beginning of a drastic change in a society.

The hearing of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s testimony before the US Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday could be considered such a moment.

Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo and the first Indigenous woman to lead the interior, was overwhelmed with emotion as she described the content of her agency’s report detailing the racist assimilation policies passed down from federal and religious boarding schools, policies designed to destroy Aboriginal people. languages ​​and cultures.

The first volume of Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative Inquiry Report released six weeks ago by the department, it is the first time the federal government has acknowledged the pain and suffering caused by its education policies for generations of Aboriginal people.

Sandra White Hawk, President of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition also testified before the Committee.

“I heard our secretary’s throat start to close,” said White Hawk, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota tribe.

“We can’t talk about these things without hearing the stories shared by our loved ones,” she said.

Indeed, the legacy of abuse and trauma suffered in American Indian boarding schools is felt by nearly every Native family.

The Senate committee is considering a bill to create a National Truth and Healing Commission to address intergenerational trauma resulting from the legacy of Native American boarding schools in the United States.

(Previous: US boarding school investigation report released)

Tribal leaders and advocates from Maine to Alaska and Hawaii joined Haaland in expressing support for a national commission, saying it would provide many with the opportunity to have their personal stories validated.

Haaland said the forced assimilation that occurred for a century and a half through the boarding school initiative was both traumatic and violent. She noted that she herself was a product of these policies as her grandparents were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools.

“The federal Indian boarding school policy is part of the American story that we need to tell,” Haaland said. “While we cannot change this history, I believe our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth about what happened and a focus on healing the wounds of the past.”

The dark history of Native American boarding schools – where children were not allowed to speak their language and were often abused – has been deeply felt across Indian Country and across generations.

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and policies to establish and support boarding schools. The goal was to civilize Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funds and were willing partners.

According to the boarding school report, about 50 percent of federal boarding schools were run in conjunction with Christian missionary groups. Often, the federal government provided direct funding to these religious organizations to operate residential schools.

The Department of the Interior report named more than 400 schools that the federal government has supported to strip Native Americans of their identity. The study has so far identified at least 500 children who died in some schools, but the number could reach thousands or tens of thousands as research continues.

In part two of the report, Interior leaders plan a year-long tour to collect stories from residential school survivors for an oral history collection or “path to healing.”

Haaland requested $7 million in additional funding to continue work documenting burial sites as well as documenting the stories of survivors and their families, while incorporating consultation with tribal communities.

“I believe our obligations to Indigenous communities mean that federal policies should fully support and revitalize Indigenous health care, education, Indigenous languages ​​and cultural practices than previous federal Indian policies, such as those supporting residential schools. , sought to destroy,” she said. .

Oklahoma will be one of the first stops on the road to recovery.

“It’s one thing to share your story within your home or community, but it’s another thing to share those stories in a place where they will be validated by outside entities that caused it all,” said WhiteHawk.

“It brings healing in itself; it addresses what we call disenfranchised bereavement in our communities.

A gravestone of an unknown student who attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School is on the grounds of what is now the US Army War College.  The proposed Truth and Healing Commission would be tasked with investigating unmarked graves and other abuses of the residential school system.  (File photo by Addison Kliewer/Gaylord News)
Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes (center) testified before the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples for a new bill in May.  If passed by Congress, HR 54-44 would establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Federal Residential School Policies.  (Photo courtesy of the Shawnee Tribe)

As for legislation to create a truth and healing commission, it had its first congressional hearing last month. It is sponsored by two Native American representatives – Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Chickasaw.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren is leading the effort in the Senate.

The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior inquiry to search for records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its adoption, possible in the US House but more difficult in the Senate.

Working to uncover the truth and create a healing path would require financial resources in Indian Country, which the federal government has chronically underfunded.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, said it would be difficult to quantify the cost of cultural damage from the residential school era.

But he said congressional leaders should have conversations every year when setting funding priorities, to ensure tribal programs are properly supported.

He said any work by a national commission would inevitably open up old wounds.

“It will be a difficult time, and communities are going to have to be able to endure this historic trauma through treatment. Resources are going to be a big part of that success,” he said.

Norma Ryuko Kaweloku Wong Roshi, policy officer for former Hawaiian Governor John D. Waiheʻe III, said the work of the Interior and any future commission should be seen as steps in a process that will span generations. .

“It’s not one and done,” Wong said. “What took hundreds of years to tear until it broke cannot be repaired, let alone propelled us to a more prosperous future with just a few studies, reports and hearings. There is work to be done , and it can be fruitful.

Senate Committee Chairman Brian Schatz, a Hawaiian Democrat, welcomed testimony from residential school survivors who want to share their stories. Written stories and comments for the hearing record may be submitted to [email protected]

The publication date of the second part of the report on the Home Office internship was not provided.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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