“We all carry the trauma in our hearts”

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about boarding and boarding schools. If you’re feeling triggered, here’s a resource list for trauma responses of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the United States. The National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Marie-Annette Pember

ANADARKO, Oklahoma — A journey like no other began last Saturday for survivors of American Indian residential schools.

Young and old, descendants and survivors, thronged the gymnasium at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, to share their experiences as U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland kicked off Road to Healing tour. .

Until now, former residential school students were largely ignored, forced to survive brutality and separation from family, culture and language, and to cope with childhood trauma as best they could. they could.

Finally, the world is listening.

“I still feel that pain,” said Donald Neconie, 84, Kiowa, who attended Riverside School in the 1940s.

Neconie, a former US Marine, described physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school employees. Headteachers knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it, he said.

“You couldn’t cry or tell anyone because if you did you knew it would be worse,” he said. “I will never forgive this school for what they did to me.”

Neconie was among half a dozen people who spoke publicly at the hearing on Saturday, with Haaland and Deputy Indian Affairs Secretary Bryan Newland presiding over a crowd of more than 100 people. Additional testimony continued behind closed doors to provide privacy for survivors.

Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills (Ojibwe) Indian community, sat at a table in front of the crowd, taking notes and quietly giving testimony. Haaland is the first indigenous person to hold a position in the presidential cabinet, and members of his family attended boarding schools.

The crowd sat in rapt attention, some in tears.

Survivors, many of whom are now elders, spoke without interruption. Their voices often broke with emotion, but they were heard, their words were recorded and for the first time entered into federal historical records.

Related stories:
—American boarding school investigation report released
—Indigenous leaders push for boarding school commission
—215 bodies found in residential school in Canada
—A Mother’s Prayer: Bring the Children Home

Oklahoma was the first leg of a year-long nationwide tour that is part of the Department of the Interior Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative launched by Haaland in June 2021. Last month, the agency published volume one of an investigative report, led by Newland, which calls for connecting communities with trauma-informed support as well as creating a permanent oral history of survivors.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, sits with Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to hear testimony from residential school survivors during the Road to Healing hearing at the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, Saturday, July 9, 2022. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

The tour also aims to connect communities with trauma-informed support and facilitate the collection of ongoing oral history. Haaland will visit Hawaii, Michigan, Arizona and South Dakota this year, with more states to be announced for 2023.

“I want you all to know that I am with you on this journey,” Haaland told the crowd. “I’m here to listen, to listen with you, to cry with you… Federal Indian residential school policies have touched every Indigenous person. I know some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry the trauma in our hearts. »

A dark story

The Riverside School is believed to be the oldest Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, having first opened in 1871.

The school still operates today as a boarding school, serving approximately 800 students in grades 4 through 12. Operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, Riverside provides Native students from across the United States with specialized academic programs as well as courses focused on cultural subjects.


Scroll to continue

According to the office’s website, Riverside is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools across the United States that seek to provide education aligned with tribal needs for cultural and economic well-being.

Former student Rachel Mowatt of the Comanche and Delaware tribes did not testify but spoke to TIC one day before the start of the hearing. She said her tenure at Riverside School gave her the opportunity to connect with its culture and language. She graduated in 1997.

“I wasn’t brought up in the culture,” she says. “Riverside opened the doors to my identity.”

But the school also has a dark history of mistreating thousands of Indigenous students who were forced from their homes to attend a school designed to eliminate their culture and language.

More than 100 people attended the Road to Healing Tour at the Riverside Indian School in Adadarko, Oklahoma on July 9, 2022, to hear testimonies from survivors and descendants of Indian Council schools.  The hearing kicked off a year-long tour by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo to take testimony.  (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Oklahoma was home to the highest number of Indian boarding schools in the United States, with at least 76, followed by Arizona with 47 and New Mexico with 43. According to the survey report recently released by the Department of Inside, at least 408 boarding schools were operating nationwide, although the number is expected to increase as research continues.

Some schools, like the Concho Indian School in El Reno, Oklahoma, which operated from 1871 until about 1968, are nearly lost in obscurity.

The Concho School buildings are long gone. Only a few campus sidewalks and a small pedestrian bridge – now overgrown with weeds – are still standing. An area in a grove of trees is said to be the site of the school’s graveyard, though the headstones have long since given way to the elements.

Efforts are already underway in the United States and Canada to identify the graves, many of which are unmarked, of students who died while attending schools and who were never returned to their families.

‘It will be done’

Haaland promised those in attendance at the Riverside event on Saturday that the Interior Department’s next steps will include identifying unmarked burial sites and cemeteries as well as determining the total amount of funds spent by the federal government on the boarding school system.

“Why did only Indian boarding schools have cemeteries?” asked Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee tribe.

Barnes was in court to share the testimony of a Shawnee citizen who attended Chilocco Indian School near Newkirk, Oklahoma, and was unable to make it to Riverside.

The woman, now a senior residing in Salina, Kansas, described how she was threatened with death in the school cemetery if she reported her rape at the hands of school employees.

“The legacy of boarding schools and removal from families is real, present and existential,” he said. “Now is the time to speak the truth, to reconcile and to heal.”

Barnes noted that a national system allowing survivors to testify is needed.

“Coming to Riverside and other schools will not be enough for some of our citizens,” he said. “A lot of our people don’t want to be near where they were raped.”

After hearing an hour of testimony, members of the press were asked to step down to allow participants to speak privately to the committee. Haaland ended the public hearing by acknowledging the work ahead.

“Know that we still have a long way to go to get the healing that can help our communities,” she said. “It won’t be done overnight, but it will be done.”

Dacoda McDowell-Wahpekeche contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.

New ICT logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories deserve your support. To contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its essential mission. Sign up for ICT free newsletter.

Previous Recognition of Ambassadors of South Indian Culture
Next Not Indian culture to denigrate any religion: VP Naidu