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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

National awareness about the role of the federal government and Christian churches in the U.S. Indian boarding school policy is growing rapidly.

Ignited by the discoveries of children’s graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, the U.S. is poised to face its own reckoning for a similar history.

The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition seized on the growing awareness during its Healing in a Time of Truth and Justice Summit, held virtually on Nov. 19-20.

Presenters at this year’s summit encouraged people to reach out to their congressional representatives in support of the Truth and Healing Commission on U.S. Indian Boarding Schools Act that was reintroduced to Congress on Sept. 30 by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and U.S. Reps. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, Ho-Chunk, and Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, Chickasaw Nation.

Read more about boarding schools:
Deaths at Chemawa
A Mother's Prayer: Bring the children home
St. Mary's Mission: 'This place is the Devil'
Are your ancestors on the list?

Originally introduced in 2020 by Warren and then-Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico and now Secretary of the Interior, the act calls for:

  • Establishing a commission that includes tribal and Native representatives, with an advisory committee and survivors committee
  • A formal investigation and documentation of attempts to terminate cultures, religions and Indigenous languages, as well as assimilation practices and human rights violations
  • A formal investigation and documentation of impact and ongoing effects of historical and inter-generational trauma in Native communities
  • Culturally respectful and meaningful public hearings for victims, survivors and other community members

The act also calls for development of recommendations for the federal government to acknowledge and heal the history of inter-generational boarding school policies, including providing resources and assistance to aid in healing ongoing trauma; the establishment of a nationwide hotline for survivors, family members and other community members.

It also calls for the end to continued removal of Native children from their families and tribal communities under modern-day assimilation practices carried out by state social service departments, foster care agencies and adoption services

Both Davids and Warren shared prerecorded videos during the summit.

“It would be difficult to find a Native person who has not had the boarding school era impact their families or communities,” Davids said in the video. “We still feel those impacts today. The federal government and our country must do better, acknowledge its legacy and understand the full truth of these policies.”

Warren noted that the bill is receiving bipartisan support.

“Your outreach thus far has had a big impact,” she said in the video. “If each of you can help add your voices to this effort, we can continue to build support for the bill.”

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive officer of the coalition and a citizen of Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation, said Haaland’s creation of a federal Indian boarding school initiative is a powerful first step in holding the government accountable.

“We believe the congressional commission, however, is the most comprehensive approach to developing a complete picture of the ongoing impacts of boarding schools and how they’ve affected generations,” she said.

Several boarding school survivors shared their stories during an emotional first day of the summit, including Ta-ah Amy Marie George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation; Mitch Walking Elk of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes; Dr. Wana Mahal Dixon of the Pauma tribe; and Jim LaBelle Sr., Inupiaq.

All expressed a desire for the churches and federal government to give a full accounting of their roles in operating boarding schools.

“Those of us in Indian Country, we know what happened,” Walking Elk said. “I’m glad the stories are coming out and hope there are some consequences for the perpetrators.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a memorial at the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, that's in recognition of discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

Coalition co-founder and first president Denise Lajimodiere of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe opened the summit with a keynote address about how the organization has grown since its beginning in 2012. “We all worked as volunteers in those days,” she said.

After extensive research, Lajimodiere created the first list of U.S. Indian boarding schools that is now available on the coalition website. She went on to write, “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors,” a series of interviews with boarding school survivors.

Sandy White Hawk, of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, is the current coalition president and is also the founder and director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, an organization serving as a resource for First Nations people impacted by foster care or adoption. A research team from the institute, the University of Minnesota and the coalition are conducting an anonymous survey to learn more about Native American and Alaska Native experiences and impacts of child removal related to the Indian boarding school policy.

White Hawk and McCleave discussed the project during the summit and the importance of decolonizing the research process and upholding Indigenous data sovereignty.

“We always try to focus on healing and resiliency, countering that deficit discourse,” said McCleave. “We want to make sure research that we’re doing and efforts to share survivor stories is done in a way that upholds Indigenous data sovereignty and the right of Indigenous nations to determine how data is collected and used.”

Results from the coalition’s study will be an important part of efforts to understand and address the ongoing trauma caused by boarding schools. Researchers hope that the data collected will help spark a national conversation on trauma from Native child removal and boarding schools, and will help inform policy reform, best practices in social work and healthcare fields, and community-led healing initiatives,

Summit presenters also discussed the way forward. Indigenous peoples, they agreed, need to be the ones setting the terms of truth, healing and justice.

“Reconciliation lacks justice and truth,” McCleave said. “The term reconciliation is a colonizer, biblical term; no one has asked us what reconciliation means to us … When it comes to justice, the truth needs to be heard from survivors and descendants.”

White Hawk agreed.

“Without healing, there can be no reconciliation,” White Hawk said. “Reconciliation is not an event; it could take awhile.”

Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and citizen of the Quinault Indian Nation, also participated in the summit, speaking of the importance of supporting such efforts as the Indian boarding school initiative and ensuring that findings are not done in a vacuum.

“This is our time — the ancestors have called us to do this work,” Sharp said. “We are prepared to do it. Let’s hold the United States accountable for all of their institutional racism and inequities that have transcended generations.”

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