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WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the US. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Ramona Charette Klein remembers her mom's tears.

She also remembers the beatings and the bruises left by a matron at school.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa citizen was only 7 years old when she first started Fort Totten Indian boarding school in North Dakota from 1954 to 1958. It was an isolating time for her.

“That experience has impacted my entire life. It was a time when I was the loneliest,” she recalled.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Charette Klein, 74, was among the boarding school survivors to stand with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during Wednesday's historic and emotional moment at the U.S. Interior Department.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative’s first volume was released nearly a year after Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and the first-ever Native Cabinet member, promised a “comprehensive” review of some of the federal government’s darkest history.

(Related: US boarding school investigative report released)

Haaland, Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Deborah Parker who is the chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and James LaBelle Sr., a boarding school survivor and the first vice president of the coalition's board, spoke at the news conference.

LaBelle, Inupiaq, said he assisted with the report by helping a researcher name some of the Alaska boarding schools. He attended two boarding schools in Alaska— the Wrangell Institute and Mount Edgecumbe High School — from 1955 to 1965. He enrolled at the age of 8 years old and his brother was six.

Alaska was still a territory until 1959.

“I learned everything about the European-American culture; its history, language, civilization, math, science, but I didn’t know anything about who I was, as a Native person. I came out not knowing who I was,” he said at the conference.

The report found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states, some territories at that time, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven schools in Hawai’i. Approximately 19 schools accounted for over 500 child deaths, according to the report. 

Some of these schools operated across multiple sites.

And approximately 53 different schools had been identified with marked or unmarked burial sites.

LaBelle cited the historical trauma it has had on Alaska Native communities like high incarceration, suicide, domestic violence and murder rates. 

He spoke with Indian Country Today and said there’s always something that brings back memories of his time at boarding school and others with the coalition also remember.

He said the report is an opportunity for boarding school survivors to get their stories heard.

“I really hope that they will get the courage to share their own experiences for the record. It's going to be so helpful to their children and grandchildren to help them understand who they were, as when they were young and going to these boarding schools,” he said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaking with boarding school survivors on May 11, 2022. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
Boarding school survivor Dr. Ramona Charette Klein, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, attended the Department of Interior press conference on May 11, 2022. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Klein asks what the impact was not only on the survivors, but on the parents of the children.

She remembers boarding a big green bus in North Dakota when she was 7 and watching her mom cry on the sidewalk. Her father also attended Wahpeton Indian School as a child, and he later died while his children were at boarding school.

Klein remembers being beaten by a matron, who called it the ‘board of education.’ It would leave her with bruises on her backside.

She said for a long time she told herself to not cry and it impacted her for the rest of her life where she couldn’t cry anymore.

For her, the report is to inform others and Americans who never learned about this United States history.

“It means to me, a step in a direction where the stories will be heard.” she said. “It never ceases to amaze me how many people say I never knew about it.”

Haaland reflected on how she is someone who has been personally affected by the boarding school policies and is now working for the same institution that implemented them.

She said the vast majority of the work was done by Indigenous staff at the Interior who “worked through their own trauma and pain to ensure that we have this report to release today.”

Newland, from the Bay Mills Indian Community, said he grew up in a family and community who understood the effects of the federal Indian boarding schools.

“This has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people. There’s not a single American Indian, Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian in this country whose life hasn’t been affected by these schools,” he said.

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ICT's Jourdan Bennett-Begaye contributed to this report.

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