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Mary Annette Pember

Sometimes there are moments in history that mark the beginning of a sea change in a society.

Hearing Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday may qualify as such a moment.

Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and first Native woman to lead the Interior, was overwhelmed with emotion as she described the contents of her agency’s report detailing racist assimilationist policies forwarded by federal and church operated boarding schools, policies that were designed to destroy Native languages and cultures.

The first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report released six weeks ago by the department, is the first time the federal government has acknowledged the pain and suffering caused by its education policies for generations of Native people.

Sandra White Hawk, president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition also testified before the Committee.

“I heard our secretary’s throat begin to close,” White Hawk, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, said.

“We can’t speak of these things without hearing the stories shared by our relatives,” she said.

Indeed, the legacy of abuse and trauma suffered at U.S. Indian boarding schools is felt by nearly every Native family.

The Senate committee is considering legislation to establish a national commission on truth and healing to address intergenerational trauma stemming from the legacy of Native American boarding schools in the United States.

(Previous: US boarding school investigative report released)

Tribal leaders and advocates from Maine to Alaska and Hawaii joined Haaland in voicing their support for a national commission, saying it would offer a path for many to have their personal stories validated.

Haaland said the forced assimilation that happened over a century and half through the boarding school initiative was both traumatic and violent. She noted she herself was a product of those policies as her grandparents were removed from their families and sent to boarding schools.

"Federal Indian boarding school policy is a part of America's story that we must tell," Haaland said. "While we cannot change that history, I believe that our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth of what took place and a focus on healing the wounds of the past."

The dark history of Native American boarding schools - where children were prohibited from speaking their languages and often abused - has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support the boarding schools. The goal was to civilize Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funding and were willing partners.

According to the Boarding School report, about 50 percent of federal boarding schools were operated in collaboration with Christian missionary groups. Often the federal government provided direct funding to these religious organizations to operate Indian boarding schools.

Pictured: Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior and Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary–Indian Affairs, participated as witnesses in an oversight, legislative hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the Federal Indian Boarding Schools bill.

The Interior Department’s report named more than 400 schools the federal government supported to strip Native Americans of their identities. The study has so far identified at least 500 children who died at some of the schools, but that number could reach into the thousands or tens of thousands as research continues.

In part two of the report, Interior leaders are planning a yearlong tour to gather stories of boarding school survivors for an oral history collection or “road to healing.”

Haaland requested $7 million in additional funding in order to continue the work of documenting grave sites as well as documenting stories from survivors and their families, all while incorporating consultation with tribal communities.

"I believe that our obligations to Native communities mean that federal policies should fully support and revitalize Native health care, education, Native languages, and cultural practices that prior federal Indian policies, like those supporting Indian boarding schools, sought to destroy," she said.

One of the first stops on the road to healing will be in Oklahoma.

“It’s one thing to share your story within your home or community but it’s another to share those stories in a place where they will be validated by outside entities that brought this all on,” said White Hawk.

“This brings on a healing in itself; it addresses what we call disenfranchised grief in our communities.”

A tombstone of an unknown student that attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School sits on the grounds of the present-day U.S. Army War College. The proposed Truth and Healing Commission would be charged with investigating unmarked grave sites and other abuses of the Indian boarding school system. (File photo by Addison Kliewer/Gaylord News)
Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes (center) testified at the House subcommittee on Indigenous people for a new piece of legislation in May. If passed by Congress, HR 54-44 would establish a truth and healing commission on federal Indian boarding school policies. (Photo courtesy of Shawnee Tribe)

As for the legislation to create a truth and healing commission, it had its first congressional hearing last month. It's sponsored by two Native American U.S. representatives - Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Chickasaw.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren is leading the effort in the Senate.

The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior's investigation to seek records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its passage, possible in the U.S. House but more difficult in the Senate.

Work to uncover the truth and create a path for healing would require financial resources in Indian Country, which the federal government has chronically underfunded.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, said it would be difficult to quantify the cost of the cultural damages from the boarding school era.

But he said congressional leaders should be having conversations each year as they set funding priorities, to ensure tribal programs are adequately supported.

He said any work by a national commission would inevitably open old wounds.

"It will be a difficult time, and the communities are going to have to be able to support that historical trauma through treatment. Resources are going to be a huge part of that success," he said.

Norma Ryuko Kaweloku Wong Roshi, a policy official for former Hawai’i Gov. John D. Waiheʻe III, said the work by the Interior and any future commission should be looked at as steps in a process that will span generations.

"This is not one and done," Wong said. "What took hundreds of years to tear to the point of breaking cannot be repaired, let alone propel us toward a more thriving future over the course of a few studies, reports and hearings. There is work to be done, and it can be fruitful."

Senate Committee chairman Brian Schatz, a Hawai’i Democrat, welcomed testimony from boarding school survivors who want to share their stories. Stories and written comments for the hearing’s record can be submitted to

A date for the release of part two of the Interior Department’s boarding school report was not provided.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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