Native American leaders push for boarding school commission

The federal government has a responsibility to Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian communities to fully support and revitalize the education, language, and cultural practices that past boarding school policies sought to destroy, said US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday.

Haaland testified before a U.S. Senate committee considering legislation to create a National Truth and Healing Commission to address intergenerational trauma stemming from the legacy of Native American boarding schools in the United States.

As the first and only Native American Cabinet Secretary, Haaland’s voice cracked with emotion and her eyes filled as she addressed the committee.

Haaland, from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, said the forced assimilation that happened for a century and a half through the boarding school initiative was both traumatic and violent. She noted that she herself was a product of these policies as her grandparents were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools.

“The federal Indian boarding school policy is part of the American story that we need to tell,” Haaland said. “While we cannot change this history, I believe our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth about what happened and a focus on healing the wounds of the past.”

Tribal leaders and advocates from Maine to Alaska and Hawaii joined Haaland in expressing support for a national commission, saying it would provide many with the opportunity to have their personal stories validated.

The dark history of Native American boarding schools – where children were not allowed to speak their language and were often abused – has been deeply felt across Indian Country and across generations.

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

The Haaland agency in May released a one-of-a-kind report who named more than 400 schools that the federal government has supported to strip Native Americans of their identity. The study has so far identified at least 500 children who died in some schools, but that number is expected to rise into the thousands or tens of thousands as research continues.

The department is also planning a year-long tour to collect stories from residential school survivors for an oral history collection. Haaland said one of the first stops will be in Oklahoma.

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

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

The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior inquiry to search for records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its adoption, possible in the US House but more difficult in the Senate.

Working to uncover the truth and create a path to 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 cultural damage from the residential school era. But he said congressional leaders should have conversations every year when setting funding priorities, to ensure tribal programs are properly supported.

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

“It will be a difficult time and communities will need to be able to bear this historic trauma through treatment. Resources are going to be a big part of that success,” he said.

Norma Ryūkō Kawelokū Wong Roshi, political aide to former Hawaii Governor John Waiheʻe, said the work of the Department of the Interior and any future commission should be seen as steps in a process that will span several generations.

“It’s not one and done,” Wong said. “What took hundreds of years to tear to the point of shattering cannot be repaired, much less propelled us to a more prosperous future with a few studies, reports and hearings. There is work to be done and it can be fruitful.

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