Skip to main content

Christine Diindiisi McCleave’s great grandfather, John Willette, played football with Jim Thorpe at Carlisle Indian School in 1920.

“I didn’t learn anything about my family’s boarding school history until I started working at the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition,” said McCleave, CEO of the coalition.

Many boarding school survivors never speak to their families about their experience because of the shame and trauma they suffered in the institutions where they were penalized for being Native American.

Indian boarding and day schools were created to destroy Native children’s connection to their culture, family and spirituality and assimilate them into mainstream America.

According to McCleave, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, the annual healing summits offer survivors a chance to share their long hidden stories while caring for heart and spirit. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to celebrate their resilience.

Coalition leaders organized the first healing summit in 2018 at the Carlisle Indian School.

“We knew we wanted to create a space for boarding school survivors and descendants to come together, share their stories and learn from and inspire each other,” McCleave said.

This year, however, presented a challenge. Although the pandemic kept people from meeting in person, coalition leaders organized the "Boarding School Healing Virtual Summit, Healing Narratives: Past, Present and Future" in November.

According to McCleave, over 500 people registered for the daylong event that featured keynote speakers Clyde Bellecourt, White Earth Ojibwe, co-founder of the American Indian Movement and Sandy White Hawk, Sicangu Lakota, founder and director of First Nations Repatriation. 

Marlene Helgemo, Ho-Chunk, minister of All Nations Church in Minneapolis and co-founder of the Coalition, opened the summit with prayer.

“Let tears that may be shed be our prayers. Move us to the present as we seek to understand the trauma that affects our families. Our stories will release us to more healing and love,” Helgemo said.

In 2007, Canada offered survivors of Indian residential schools an apology, financial compensation and created The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a framework for healing.

In the U.S., however, the federal government has never acknowledged the Indian boarding school era; the general public is largely unaware of this history and the role the government played in coercing Native parents to send their children away to boarding schools according to McCleave.

“The Coalition is doing the work of a truth commission in the U.S. by collecting oral histories from survivors and providing spaces for them and their families to heal,” she said.

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, recently introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to create a truth and healing commission on Indian boarding schools, according to McCleave.

“In the meantime we are working to create awareness, find and digitize records from boarding schools and provide healing opportunities such as the healing Summits,” she said.

During the summit, coalition advocates described their work building the National Indian Boarding School Digital Archive scheduled to launch in 2022. The digital archive will include information from over 367 Indian boarding schools and will be searchable online.

McCleave also described the coalition’s “We love you,” COVID-19 elder care packages that are being sent to boarding school survivors and descendants over age 60.

According to McCleave, the packages contain good medicines and lots of love.

“We heard so many stories of how survivors never got to hear ‘I love you,’ and were never hugged. All too often that got passed down through our families.”

“So we decided to call the packages ‘I love you,’ to symbolize love that is given freely,” she said.

During the “Honoring our Memories” session of the summit, boarding school survivors shared their experiences.

Patricia Whitefoot, Yakama, described how as an adult she gradually became aware of her overwhelming fear of making mistakes and finally traced the fear to her experience at Indian boarding school.

“Those fearful teachings came from the rigid, military part of life at the boarding school,” she said.

According to Whitefoot, it took a long time to uncover the source of her fear and hurt.

“After we acknowledge all that happened to us and put it aside, we can be more in control of who we are. It’s such a relief,” she said.

“The nuns voices are still in my head even after all these years regardless of all the healing work I’ve done. “You didn’t do this,” or “you didn’t do that,” said Lakota Harden of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.

“I have to change the dialogue in my head on a daily basis. Today when I look in the mirror, I see the faces of my ancestors,” she said.

“Now,” Harden said, “I’m able to feel the pain and weep when needed. I can see how strong and resilient we are.”

During the summit’s closing ceremony, White Hawk of First Nations Repatriation spoke about the importance of letting out the painful emotions from trauma.

She described not wanting to cry over some of her traumatic memories.

“After I cried, an elder said, ‘There you did it. You let yourself cry. You just had a little ceremony where you purified your body of that tension; that’s good,’” she said.

“Let’s remember that revealing the truth is what brings power; our culture is what brings healing. That’s where our power lies, in our language, our songs, ceremonies and fellowship in gatherings with each other.”

ICT smartphone logo

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.