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New York Conference Addresses Historical Trauma Imposed by Boarding Schools


The organization that produced the gripping documentary “Unseen Tears”—which features boarding school survivors talking openly about the tragic separation from their families, abuse and the systematic assault on their language and culture—is hosting a two-part conference about coping with the accompanying grief and trauma.

“We knew that in the healing process for the community and in the individual, there were tears yet to come,” Michael Martin, Onondaga, executive director of the Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, Inc. (NACS), told Indian Country Today Media Network. “That’s how [the documentary] got its name.”

The first part of the conference took place on June 20-21 in Buffalo, New York. It served as an introduction to the second half, which is titled “Raising HOPE by Learning to Wipe Away the Unseen Tears.” The symposium takes place July 20 to 22 in Niagara Falls, New York, and is presented by the NACS with support from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

“Through the boarding school experience, we lost touch with our Native language and traditional ways,” Martin told ICTMN. “We’ve developed an approach called HOPE—Healing Our People through Empowerment, based on a social cultural model of prevention.”

Among many other matters, the conferences addressed coping skills through “listening to those who have turned back [returned] to traditional teachings or back to faith” as a means of healing, Martin explained.

At part one, Jane Middelton-Moz (part Anishnabe), an internationally renowned speaker and author, delivered a “powerful and emotional” presentation, Martin said, about “trauma, sexual abuse, alcoholism, death and loss, and suicide.”

Middelton-Moz explained “lateral violence”—how the issues and pressures native people inflict on each other stems from relationship skills born out of boarding schools. As Martin states, “These and other issues are passed on generation to generation without knowing where they came from.”

Wellbriety trainer and consultant Don Coyhis, president and a co-founder of White Bison, Inc.—a nonprofit focused on wellness and sobriety—and a member of the Mohican Nation from the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin, will speak at part two of the conference.

Coyhis will discuss “the impacts of historical trauma and unresolved grief” and “demonstrate the destruction of families inflicted through boarding school strategies,” Martin said.

“To heal, we have to get to the point of forgiving the unforgivable,” Martin told ICTMN, referencing Coyhis’ teachings.


Each conference costs $40 with advance registration. Elders, 60 and older, can attend for free; plus, a limited number of scholarships are available based on need.

The Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagra Counties' target population resides in the urban areas of Buffalo and Niagra Falls, including non-Natives and Natives. The Indian population in Western New York includes a mix of members of all six Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Nations (Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk). The Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagra Counties also serves other individuals from tribes from across North America, including numerous Haudenosaunee and other territories in Southern Ontario.