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Boarding School Issues Tackled

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A who’s who of boarding school scholars was convened in the university town of Boulder, Colorado to plan future steps for Native people affected by U.S. policies that tore children from their homes, often abused them, and tried to erase their culture.

National recognition, an apology, and reparations for “wrongs visited upon individuals and communities of Indian country by the U.S. boarding school policy” were major goals of the gathering held May 14-15. The enormity of wrongs done left some participants in tears but also led to planning for language revitalization and to possible future legal and policy measures.

The Boarding School Healing Symposium was hosted by the American Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado Law School and included the Boarding School Healing Project, Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Human Rights Advisory Clinic at the University of Wyoming. Attendees at invitation-only sessions ranged from representatives of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to those from schools of law and social work.

A central concern was voiced by panelist Tim Giago, Oglala Lakota, a long-time journalist and publisher, who queried, “Where do you start? Who do you forgive first? Yourself? Can you forgive the one at boarding school who raped your sister?”

The damage to Native people didn’t stop at residential schools, he pointed out, but was followed by federal relocation policies that took former boarding school students from familiar surroundings and left them in urban ghettoes where, largely without marketable skills, some lived in poverty or eventually took a ghetto-learned lifestyle of drugs, alcohol and gangs back to their reservations.


The object isn’t blame, “but there’s a reason we are the way we are,” said another panelist, Gerry Oleman, Stl’atl’imx Nation, a TRC member from the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, British Columbia, where he is a community support worker. He noted that by 1930, three-fourths of Indian children were in residential schools in what was “the beginning of the fragmentation of our families.”

But “We need to get on the same page (as to) what healing is,” Oleman said in a later meeting. “I don’t want to be an expert, because then I’d be telling people what to do. We’re not responsible for the people, we’re responsible to them.”

When second-day discussions turned to future plans, Richard LaFortune, Yupik, said such policy groups as the National Congress of American Indians, First Nations chiefs, the Maori Congress, and a similar Australian group, could join with truth and reconciliation bodies from various countries to address the aftermath of the boarding schools.

Legal strategies against the U.S. could include use of the so-called “bad man” clause in the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which says that “if bad men among the whites” commit wrongs against Indians, the government will “reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.”


The law could provide the threat of a penalty if the government does not craft a political solution for its accountability for boarding school atrocities, but extensive research should precede litigation and NARF should be involved, said attorneys John Allison, of Eymann Allison Hunter Jones P.S., and Robert Golten, University of Wyoming, Human Rights Advocacy Clinic.

Deeper reconciliation may come from language and cultural restoration, some conference participants said, among them Levina Wilkens, of the Yakama Nation Elder & Language Program, who spoke at length in her Native language to illustrate the alienation children felt who were not allowed to speak their language and who were among strangers.

She said many people don’t know their own tribal history and “you have to go on the Internet to find out who your ancestors are,” urging people to know their land and its history, because “they took our identity.”

Patricia Whitefoot, Yakama, president of the National Indian Education Association, said 90 percent of Native languages are dying and others are on the brink of extinction. “We are that memorial to the ancestors,” she said, adding, “I want those whippings to have value for our children and grandchildren.”

A public showing of the film, A Century of Genocide in the Americas: The Residential School Experience, was discussed by Rosemary Gibbons, Mimbres Apache/Chicana, who is the film’s co-producer, and by a subsequent panel.

Jill Tompkins, director of the University of Colorado’s American Indian Law Clinic and symposium coordinator, said it was a “historic gathering of those people and organizations which have been committed to effectuating healing for both individuals and tribal communities from this shameful legacy,” adding that participants hope for “a plan that will be effective at both the national and local level.”