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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.

Mary Annette Pember

ANADARKO, Oklahoma — A journey like no other began at last Saturday for survivors of U.S. Indian boarding schools.

Young and old, descendants and survivors, crowded into the gymnasium of Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, to share their experiences as the kickoff to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s Road to Healing tour.

Until now, former boarding school students were largely ignored, forced to survive brutality and separation from family, culture and language, and deal with childhood traumas as best they could.

Finally, the world is listening.

“I still feel that pain,” said Donald Neconie, 84, Kiowa, who attended Riverside school in the 1940s.

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Neconie, a former U.S. Marine, described physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school employees. School leaders knew of the abuse but did nothing to stop it, he said.

“You couldn’t cry or tell anyone, because if you did, you knew it would be worse,” he said. “I will never forgive this school for what they did to me.”

Donald Neconie, 84, Kiowa, testifed on Saturday, July 9, 2022, as part of the U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's Road to Healing tour of the brutality he suffered while attending Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in the 1940s. Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and the first Indigenous person to sit in a presidential cabinet, kicked off the yearlong tour in Anadarko to hear testimony from survivors and descendants of Indian boarding schools. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Neconie was one of about a half-dozen people who spoke publicly Saturday at the hearing, with Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland presiding over a crowd of more than 100 people. Additional testimony continued behind closed doors to offer privacy to the survivors.

Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), sat at a table in front of the crowd, taking notes and quietly bearing witness to the testimonies. Haaland is the first Indigenous person to serve in a presidential cabinet position, and she had family members who attended boarding schools.

The crowd sat in rapt attention, some in tears.

Survivors, many of whom are now elders, spoke without interruption. Their voices often broke with emotion but they were heard, their words were taken down and for the first time entered into federal historical record.

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Oklahoma was the first stop on a yearlong, nationwide tour that is part of the Interior Department’s Federal Indian Boarding School initiative launched by Haaland in June 2021. Last month, the agency released volume one of an investigative report, led by Newland, that calls for connecting communities with trauma-informed support as well as creation of a permanent oral history from survivors.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, sits with Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to hear testimony from Indian boarding school survivors at the Road to Healing hearing at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma on Saturday, July 9, 2022. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

The tour is also intended to connect communities with trauma-informed support and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history. Haaland will travel to Hawaii, Michigan, Arizona and South Dakota this year, with additional states to be announced for 2023.

“I want you all to know that I am with you on this journey,” Haaland told the crowd. “I am here to listen, to listen with you, to grieve with you … Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person. I know some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry the trauma in our hearts.”

A dark history

Riverside School is believed to be the oldest Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, first opening its doors in 1871.

The school still operates today as a boarding school, serving about 800 students from grades 4-12. Run by the Bureau of Indian Education, Riverside offers Native students from throughout the U.S. specialized academic programs as well as courses focused on cultural topics.

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According to the bureau’s website, Riverside is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools across the U.S. that seek to provide education aligned with tribal needs for cultural and economic well-being.

Rachel Mowatt, of the Comanche and Delaware tribes, a former student, did not testify but she spoke to ICT a day before the hearing began. She said her tenure at Riverside School provided an opportunity to connect with her culture and language. She graduated in 1997.

“I wasn’t brought up in the culture,” she said. “Riverside opened the doors to my identity.”

But the school also has a dark history of mistreating thousands of Native students who were forced from their homes to attend a school designed to eliminate their culture and language.

More than 100 people attended the Road to Healing tour at Riverside Indian School in Adadarko, Oklahoma, on July 9, 2022, to hear testimony from survivors and descendants of Indian board schools. The hearing kicked off a yearlong tour by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, to gather testimony. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Oklahoma was home to the greatest number of Indian boarding schools in the U.S., with at least 76, followed by Arizona with 47 and New Mexico with 43. According to the Interior Department’s recently released investigative report, at least 408 boarding schools operated nationwide, though the number is expected to grow as research continues.

Some schools, such as the Concho Indian School in El Reno, Oklahoma, which operated from 1871 until around 1968, are nearly lost to obscurity.

Concho School buildings are long gone. Only a few campus sidewalks and a small pedestrian bridge — now overgrown with weeds — still stand. An area within a stand of trees is rumored to be the site of the school’s cemetery, though grave markers have long since given way to the elements.

Efforts are already underway across the U.S. and Canada to identify graves, many of them unmarked, of students who died while attending the schools and were never returned to their families.

'It will be done'

Haaland promised those at the Riverside event Saturday that the Interior Department’s next steps will include identifying unmarked burial sites and cemeteries as well as determining the total amount of funding spent by the federal government on the boarding school system.

“Why is it that only Indian boarding schools had cemeteries?” asked Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee tribe.

Barnes was at the hearing to share the testimony of a Shawnee citizen who attended Chilocco Indian School near Newkirk, Oklahoma, and was unable to travel to Riverside.

The woman, now an elder residing in Salina, Kansas, described how she was threatened with an end in the school’s cemetery if she reported her rape at the hands of school employees.

“The legacy of boarding schools and removal from families is real, present and existential,” he said. “The time for truth-telling, reconciliation and healing is now.”

Barnes noted that a national system for survivors to bear testimony is needed.

“Coming to Riverside and other schools is not going to be enough for some of our citizens,” he said. “A lot of our people don’t want to be anywhere close to the site of their rape.”

After hearing an hour of testimony, members of the press were asked to leave in order to allow participants to speak privately to the committee. Haaland ended the public hearing by acknowledging the work ahead.

“Please know that we still have so much to do to gain the healing that can help our communities,” she said. “It will not be done overnight, but it will be done.”

Dacoda McDowell-Wahpekeche contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.

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