West indian culture

Boarding schools report that documenting Indigenous deaths, abuse and loss of culture is a good first step, advocates say


Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the Department of the Interior press conference on its federal boarding school investigation in Washington, DC on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Jourdan Bennett-Begaye/Indian Country Today)
A portrait shot of a woman smiling and looking straight into the camera.
Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock, Congressional Counsel for Native American Policy on the Friends Committee on National Legislation. (Committee of Friends on National Legislation)

A report on Native American boarding schools from the United States Department of the Interior has prompted Congress to do more to investigate the deaths, abuses and loss of culture that have occurred in the schools.

Many see the first volume of the Report on the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative as the beginning of the federal government’s attempts to document the systemic and forced assimilation of Indigenous children in residential schools.

This includes the Friends Committee on National Legislation and its congressional attorney for Native American policy, Portia Kaynthos Skenandore-Wheelock.

Skenandore-Wheelock says some things in the report weren’t big news, but she says it was surprising to learn how deliberately the residential school policy was aimed at taking Indigenous land.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Basically, the point was, “You can’t do much for the adults, so let’s focus on the kids.” Let’s westernize them and make them adopt western agricultural practices,” which are very different from traditional tribal practices. So that was one of the main objectives. And, you know, to some extent, that was a very successful part of politics.

Casey’s Grove: How did it work? I mean, we’ve heard stories from people, and there are definitely people here in Alaska, Alaska Natives, who have been through this, and it’s not going to surprise them. But for people who don’t know what happened in the schools and how this forced assimilation worked, could you explain that?

PKSW: Well, really, the basis is that you have to take the children away from their parents, from their tribal communities. And basically taking the kids out of this structure that they would have been raised in and moving it to be completely isolated, you know, basically raised with a lot of fear and shame and violence, unlike how they would have been raised in their own tribal communities, there were a number of ways government and church leaders could do this. One was by force. You physically abducted the children by force. Another was using starvation tools, right? So if you remove large groups of people to reserves, they can no longer support themselves. They are therefore entirely dependent on the federal government for food and basic necessities. So if you’re withholding food until he gives it to your child, you’re really forcing his hand. So there are a lot of inadmissible practices like that for children to be taken care of.

CG: Does this Home Office report, at this point, address the things that really happened in boarding schools, such as not allowing native children to use their native language, or the physical or emotional abuse that , according to people, have happened?

PKSW: Yes, so they fit a little into the program. And that included a lot of military exercises, a lot of manual labor, of course, Christian teachings, were part of that as well. And then the abuse, you know, ranged from starvation to exclusion from school in cold winters, which you can imagine in Alaska would be really terrifying for a young child. And you must also think that many of these children were only four years old. Isolation and being chained, physically beaten and sexually assaulted. This has all been documented, but the next step for the Interior over the next year is to travel the country and collect more stories and testimonies from survivors and their descendants. And that’s why it’s so timely. There are still survivors alive. So we need to do everything in our power not only to receive their testimonies, but also to help them heal and begin to break through some of this intergenerational trauma that they carry.

CG: And of course we call them survivors, because there are people who did not survive this and did not return home and are presumably buried in some of these sites with unmarked graves. Why were there burial places in these schools? Why is this such a big part of the story?

PKSW: Well, death was so common that these schools had both marked and unmarked graves in place. You know, there have also been stories of mass graves where there was no time or worry or worry, whatever the problem was, to have individual graves. But essentially these deaths, they are due to a number of things. Neglect is a big one. Abuse too. Famine. Sickness. So many children did not survive these institutions. And I think that’s where this element of accountability comes in. And that’s why, even though a number of tribal organizations and tribal nations have done some of this work themselves over the years , it is really necessary that the faith community be involved and the federal government for this accountability.

CGQ: Does this report address these issues of long-term generational trauma, this cultural trauma that still exists? I mean, does that describe that at all?

PKSW: It does. There’s a section towards the end of the report that talks about the aftermath and the intergenerational trauma that the tribes continue to go through as they reclaim everything that, you know, all of these institutions basically tried to destroy. And it’s really heartbreaking. the state of Indian country today. There are many beautiful things. There are many young people, especially, who are learning their language and revitalizing traditional farming practices. But there are still many struggles. There are a lot of people struggling with addiction to deal with this trauma and basically trying to survive in a world that doesn’t really fit or really understand Indigenous people. There is the crisis of disappearances and murders, where Indigenous women and girls, in particular, are assaulted, trafficked and killed without consequence. The conditions of poverty on many reservations are comparable to those in third world countries. And then we continue to have ugly mascot representations penetrating into the psyches of young native people, who have extremely high suicide risks. So all of that and more is really rooted in the crimes that were committed against those first families that were torn apart by those policies. So until we tackle the crimes of the boarding school era, these real consequences will continue.

CG: Well, what will happen with this problem in the future? I mean, you mentioned that this report is sort of a first step, what do you foresee happening here in the future?

PKSW: Well, I have the impression that as the work of the Interior continues, it is largely a question of finding archives and documents of the Interior, of cataloging the schools and finding more burial sites, also documenting the amount of federal funds allocated to these institutions. But to build on this work and continue it, what we really need is for Congress to act. Congress can create a federal commission, the first of its kind in the United States, to actually begin to hold the government accountable for this devastating policy, and spend about five years if this commission is created to really investigate more human rights abuses. man that took place and then this commission would make recommendations to Congress to take further action. And further action can mean, what are the next steps? How can we better support dying Indigenous languages? These schools, which were one of their main goals, were to destroy language and culture. How can we revive language and culture to somehow counteract some of the most devastating effects of this policy?


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