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Patty Talahongva
Indian Country Today

Friday is Indian Country Today reporters' roundtable. Today Mary Annette Pember and Meghan Sullivan talk about stories they've covered recently.

Meghan Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow. She grew up in Alaska and now is based in Anchorage for her fellowship with Indian Country Today.

Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe, is a senior national correspondent for Indian Country Today. She earned an Ida B. Wells Fellowship to do an in-depth report on a subject. Her story about the government and church run boarding schools for American Indian children was the result of a more than one year investigation. The original story was first published in In These Times.

A few of the comments from Mary Annette Pember:

“I had initially become interested in pursuing this, looking into trauma and specifically the trauma that my mother experienced as a boarding school survivor. And I spent some time in the Catholic boarding school archives at Marquette University... a number of years ago."

"I noticed that there was a period of time when Native people began having to pay for their tuition at these Catholic schools. And this is despite the fact that we, most of us, were guaranteed education and healthcare in some form through treaties and various subsequent legislative agreements we had with states and the federal government. And I began to wonder how that can be and troubled me. And I wanted to look into it further.”

“I was able to win a fellowship with Type Investigations. It's named after Ida B. Wells. So you may have heard of her, she was a famous, black journalist around, after the civil war around like 1915.”

“My goal had been to assign some sort of a number, like how much money did Native people actually pay? So there was not a whole lot of information available, but I did find enough to look at like nine years. Over a period of nine years, and this is like extended over 60 years in which the Catholic church accepted money for tuition from our trust and treaty funds, 60 years. And for nine of those years, it amounted to adjusted for inflation a little over $30 million.”

“So of course it begs the question, what is the total?”

“In the investigation was to find an example of these petitions that people signed, parents would have to sign, to surrender a portion of their wealth of their trust and treaty funds. It's a little bit complicated because during this period, what we sort of think of it's a classic trust fund, there were so many different streams of money, and of course they just sort of begged to be mismanaged.

“One had to go to school. If you didn't go to school they could, the federal government, could withhold your rations and there's a number of things that they could do. So there was a tremendous motivation to send your child to some sort of school."

"There was actually a Supreme court case, Quick Bear v. Leupp in like 1908, authorizing Native people to be able to surrender some of their funds to pay for their child, to go to Catholic schools. And often the Catholic boarding schools were located closer to them, and they also offer the option, unlike the federal schools, parents could occasionally go visit their children. The public federal schools were very much discouraged any kind of connection between children and their families.”

“There were a total of 400 schools and a hundred of those at least run by the Catholics. So I finally actually found one of the petitions at the federal archives. And one can see that they're signed in the same hand. So one person signed, but the authorization is made in the form of thumbprints. So pretty clearly some of the people that authorized it were illiterate.”

“So the petition I found was for the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota, and it was from 1920, and we decided that it would be very interesting to see if we could find any descendants of those people that made those thumbprints. And I was able to find two people.”

“What's really very poignant to me is one of them, Frank Dickinson, who was 90 when I was able to find him. He's since passed away actually, just earlier this month. If we hadn't reached out to him and if I hadn't spoken to him, we would have lost his story, but he has some very vivid memories of what life was like on the Red Lake reservation.”

“When we think of the Catholic church in the United States, we think of it as a very big part of social welfare and like healthcare and education. But during and after the civil war there was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. They were sort of seen as having an allegiance rather to Rome versus to the leadership in this country. So, at that time, in the Catholic church they were quite interested in gaining some political foothold and Indians, their work with Native people, became one of those ways to do that. And they began, as I said, taking over a larger part of the boarding schools and some of the other denominations took issue with that.”

“My sense was when I entered into this investigation, that it wasn't really a choice as we really think of choices and an informed choice, so that people really didn't have that much of a choice. I mean, you could send your child, you could arrange for you to see your child occasionally or you can not see your child for a year.”

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“Now the Catholic church and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, doesn't make a secret of the fact that this happened but it's not really very well known either.”

“They have all of their records at Marquette University in a special collection. And despite the fact that they received a great deal of federal money, over the years, they're very guarded about access to these archives. So it took, it took, a certain amount of persistence on my part to be able to gain access to those. And it was very illuminating.”

“He was really the only representative of the Catholic church that would speak to me and he said very little, essentially just looked at, I showed him the petitions and I asked him why the church had done this. And, you know, if they had any sort of thoughts about any kind of reparation or restitution or any kind of gestures. And he said that they have been quote unquote “talking about it and working at it.” It's been quite some time and he was not specific. I couldn't get any specifics from him about any kind of programs the Catholic church was doing.”

“A lot of people that I talked to about what they would like from the Catholic church now at this point, in terms of if there were to be any reconciliation or reparations, and I think legally it's very unlikely that that would ever happen in the United States. Canada did do a reparations agreement with their Aboriginal people but they had to change actually, elements of their constitution to do so. And I think it's unlikely that that would happen here but I think what people of the people that I spoke to survivors and people who've worked in this area for a long time they would really like the Catholic church to admit what happened just to perhaps own the history and open up their archives.”

“Currently I'm running a piece looking at the role that black activists have played in kind of preparing the ground for Native people, for our search for racial and judicial equity.

Meghan Sullivan

A few comments from Meghan Sullivan:

“Honestly it's been an amazing experience to be able to report on my communities and home and also learn from so many amazing journalists across the country. So it's been really interesting, we're all in different places, kind of reporting on different aspects of Indian country. I've been very welcomed and it's been great to work with the team.”

“Just to give you a little bit of background, so many Alaska Native subsistence fish for salmon during the summer at their fish camps. It's a huge part of our culture. It's also an important way for many communities to get food for the winter.”

“So the salmon, we fish it with set nets or fish wheels and then it's smoked and then canned, so that it's preserved throughout the winter. And this year, unfortunately, the salmon run was pretty bad so the harvest season was a bit limited”

“I go to my fish camp every year to fish for King salmon in the traditional Koyukon Athabascan way so it was really great experience for me to report on something that is so important to me and something that I would have been doing anyways.”

“It's kind of on par with trends that have been here for the last 10 years. So even within my lifetime, we used to catch around 30 salmon a day and now it's usually around five or so and there's many different factors for this and that's actually a reason, you know, a lot of biologists in Alaska are often a bit unsure about the actual reason for each salmon run being bad, but some of those factors include warming, water temperatures and they can also include competition between different fish species. So there's kind of a lot of variables there.”

“I wrote about these alternative community safety programs we have in a lot of Alaska Native villages, as well as a similar one in Canada and some Indigenous communities in Canada which I thought was really timely to report on given kind of all the discussion right now going on about police reform ideas in this country.”

“Just to give you a brief overview of these alternative community safety programs, they really are kind of focused on building community relationships within these various Indigenous communities and the officers don't carry firearms. And also in Canada, they don't lay charges. So it's kind of built on this more trusting relationship, that's more focused on safety rather than kind of discipline.”

“So in terms of stories I'm writing, I'm actually going to kind of follow up on the fish camp one I just did, that explains the larger cultural significance of subsistence fishing in Alaska and fish camps, which I'm really excited about. I think it's a great way to share part of my culture with other people in the U.S. and other tribes as well.”


Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.