One day after the Biden administration released detailed findings on the damage caused by government-run Indian boarding schools, former students who survived the harrowing experience traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in the halls of Congress. They want more investigation — including public testimony, subpoena power and the weight of congressional authority — into the 19th and 20th century campaign to tear Indigenous families from their children and land.
Matthew War Bonnet, of the Sicangu Lakota people on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, was among those testifying today before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
War Bonnet described leaving home at age 6 in 1952. It was a tortured journey along with nine of his siblings — 10 months of boarding school every year for eight years. His hair was forcibly cut, and the children were starved. Priests disciplined students with leather straps or willow sticks, razor straps, cattle prods, and a “Jesus rope” with loose strands on the ends, he recalled.
“The priest put all of us little guys, put us in one tub, and he scrubbed us hard with a big brush. The brush made our skin on our backsides all raw,” the 76-year-old said, speaking via live video stream.
The emotional hearing followed the Wednesday release of a 102-page report produced by the Department of the Interior, which itemized, for the first time, the number and location of government run- or supported-boarding schools for Native American children. The report found 408 such schools across the country. They contain at least 20 unmarked student burial sites, findings that echo recent discoveries in Canada.
Witnesses at today’s hearing spoke in measured tones, pausing briefly when their voices would catch with emotion. But they spoke in stark terms for members of Congress in attendance, urging passage of pending legislation known as the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act.
One former boarding school student pulled out gnarled, oversized rubber hands during her testimony, a prop she used to illustrate the horror of her school matron’s son touching her “like no child should ever be touched.”
There is much that is still unknown, and in releasing the report Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary and an enrolled member of the Laguna of Pueblo — noted there is much site work and investigation left to be done.
The loss of Indigenous languages caused by the government’s forced assimilation practices was a recurring theme for those seeking accountability.
James Labelle Sr. told members of Congress today that he’d been waiting 67 years to tell his boarding school story. A member of the Native Village of Port Graham, his widowed mother was asked to choose between adoption or boarding school for her son. He attended Wrangell Institute in Wrangell, Alaska, and the Mt. Edgecumbe school in Sitka, Alaska, over a 10-year period.
“I come to you as a very assimilated and acculturated man. When I first went to boarding school, I believed I was truly bilingual, I could speak Inupiaq and I could speak English,” said LaBelle, a 75-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage. “But I quickly suppressed my wishes to speak Inupiaq because of the horrors I saw and witnessed when other children were severely beaten for speaking their language. Every step of the way there were punishments for speaking our language, either in dormitories, or in the classroom, or in the mess hall.”
War Bonnet was barred from speaking his Lakota language, and as a result, he struggled to speak to his parents. “That got away from us, the Lakota language,” he testified. “We are still trying hard to catch up with that, ever since.”
Despite these accounts, in a phone interview from the Capitol, the deputy chief executive officer for the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, Samuel Torres, noted that one of the most powerful revelations of the somber week was the triumph of American Indian languages. Many speakers began and ended their remarks speaking Native languages.
“I’m always going to remember hearing so many different Native languages spoken throughout,” Torres said. His organization worked closely with the Interior Department on its name Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, and is among the most active supporters of the pending legislation. “That is not to be taken lightly.”
The Interior Department report cited voluminous records from the nation’s archives, documenting rampant abuse at the schools, where American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children were forced to attend for more than a century. The report also identified “at least” 53 total marked and unmarked burial sites for students and confirmed 500 child deaths across 19 schools — numbers the authors emphasized will grow as the department continues its investigation.
The congressional hearing today focused on the bill that could launch still more inquiry, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, introduced last year by Democrats Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas.
While the Interior Department took stock of records available in its own archives, the proposed legislation would create a five-year, 10-member commission appointed by the president and leaders in both houses of Congress. Commissioners would hold public hearings with people who attended the schools to document “the impacts of the physical, psychological, and spiritual violence of Indian boarding schools.”
The commission’s final recommendations would address how the federal government should “acknowledge and heal the historical and intergenerational trauma caused by the Indian Boarding School Policies and other cultural and linguistic termination practices.” It would cover ways to prevent the “continued removal” of Native children under “modern-day assimilation practices carried out by State social service departments, foster care agencies, and adoption services.” The bill would also create a support hotline for survivors.
More controversially, the legislation includes subpoena power for the commission, along with a broad mandate to seek records from institutions far beyond the Interior Department’s reach, including university archives, church organizations and local governments.
Rep. Jay Obernolte, a California Republican, said he strongly supports the congressional inquiry into “horrific” events. But he urged supporters to limit its costs, remove subpoena power, and have commissioners serve as volunteers.
The bill that would establish the boarding school inquiry now has 56 co-sponsors in the House and 23 in the Senate.
“I would like this legislation to be bipartisan, and I think it deserves to be,” he said, adding: “Subpoena authority, while it might serve the goal of truth, might be adversarial to the goal of healing.”
Rep. Davids, one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress and a member of the Hochunk Nation in Wisconsin, advocated for a commission with a strong mandate. She is the granddaughter of boarding school survivors and attended the Haskell Indian Nations University. The university was once the Haskell Indian Industrial Training School, one of the nation’s largest boarding schools. The graves of more than 100 Indian children lie on school grounds.
“If Native children were able to endure and survive the Indian boarding school era in our nation,” Davids said, “we should be able to find it in ourselves to fully investigate what happened to our relatives and work towards a brighter path for the next seven generations.”
Torres of the Healing Coalition cited the urgent need to hear the lived experience of those who attended boarding schools through witness testimony.
“These institutions and the survivors that are with us still, and the descendants, they deserve the opportunity to share those stories in the halls of the government,” he said.
Torres noted that subpoena power will be essential, since there is ample evidence of criminal abuse at the schools.
The resourcefulness of the survivors is also worthy of documentation, proponents of the legislation say.
“In spite of that boarding school experience, I became an educator myself. I’ve taught kindergartners through graduate students, in public schools, private schools, and tribal colleges,” said Ramona Klein, an enrolled member of the Turtle Band of Chippewa based in Belcourt, North Dakota. “I tried to create for my students an educational experience that affirms who they are and builds them up rather than one that presumes to save them, attempting to strip away their dignity.”
War Bonnet said he wants support for Indian children who should know that their grandparents weren’t “just mean all the time.”
“I want them to know that their grandparents loved them,” he said, “but we were struggling from the abuse we went through at the boarding schools.”
In his case, he said he took solace in a song he learned from his father — himself a boarding school survivor whose toes froze off during an attempted escape.
“Because of him, I turned out the way I did,” War Bonnet said. “This song has a very simple translation, the song simply says, ‘Friend, the dawn has arrived, I live again.’ Every day I would sing that song to myself before I went out to play.”