‘Take that, government,’ some former students reveal their extraordinary strength in healing
In June, when the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary ordered a long-overdue investigation into the thousands of Indigenous children the U.S. government sent to boarding schools over a century, she revealed generations-long personal ties to the schools’ brutal legacy.
Relatives of Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland were among those forcibly removed from their families and taken to the federally run schools to be “culturally assimilated.” Writing of her family’s experience for The Washington Post, Haaland said her maternal grandparents were “stolen” from their families when they were just 8 years old. They lived away from their parents, their communities and their culture until they were 13.
“Many children like them never made it back home,” wrote Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico.
Interviews with former boarding school students and their descendants living in the Southwest reveal nuanced memories that run the gamut — from deep trauma and loss, to those who said they gained some valuable lifelong skills at the schools.
Constance Fox, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho and a Bureau of Indian Affairs self-determination advisor, is an alumnus. She praised Haaland’s efforts and thinks her investigation shows goodwill from the government to further understand the traumas her ancestors suffered — memories that still persist in Indian Country.
“Moving forward, closure cannot begin to occur without acknowledging the painful history,” Fox said. “But it is hopeful to begin the healing process for the families and tribes impacted.”
Haaland’s ongoing Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative announced in June will involve close consultation with tribes and result in a final report due in April. The initiative will take stock of the past, beginning with the Civilization Fund Act of 1819 and running through the 1960s, when the U.S. enacted laws and implemented policies establishing and supporting boarding schools nationwide.
At the schools, children were doused with DDT upon arrival, coerced into “re-education” and endured physical abuse for speaking their tribal languages or practicing their traditions. Parents could not visit their children and a countless number “perished and were interred in unmarked graves,” the Interior Department reported.
Now, although they are much changed and attendance is not forced, some boarding schools for Native children still exist.
According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, there are 15 Native American schools that are still boarding, down from hundreds in 29 states that were run by government and religious institutions. Oklahoma once led the nation with 83 boarding schools, some of which remain open today. Arizona once had 51 schools.
Among them is Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, where Fox once attended. She calls Riverside today “a whole different place,” with advanced courses, upgraded buildings and a good athletic program. For parents whose children need the structure and security of a residential program, she said this option is a good one, and — far from the experiences of the past — she said the school allows Native culture to be celebrated, in a safe learning environment.
“I have friends that have kids and grandkids that go to boarding schools and it’s because they want to,” Fox said, noting that many send children to escape discrimination and alienation in public schools they would otherwise attend. “Being around their Native people makes them want to do better and want to succeed. So, I think that’s a dynamic that has changed over the years.”
Fox attended Concho Indian Boarding School from 3rd through 8th grade, and graduated from Riverside Indian School in 1984 as valedictorian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in tourism management from Northeastern State University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma.
Now a resident of Yukon, Oklahoma, she has been employed in various positions with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs for nearly three decades, mostly in the area of self-determination — a field focusing on contracting with tribes for government programs, services and projects and providing oversight and technical assistance.
Fox said boarding schools — specifically the employees that she said practically raised her — helped shape her passion for self-determination and her career.
“What at the time was negative to me ended up really being positive,” she said. “I learned so much about self-responsibility, and that came from the dorm parents, teachers, and other people who worked at both Concho and Riverside.”
Haaland’s federal initiative to revisit the schools’ darker pasts followed the discovery of more than 1,200 unmarked graves at two shuttered boarding schools in Canada’s British Columbia and Saskatchewan provinces. The Interior secretary said learning of that discovery made her “sick to her stomach,” and she vowed to uncover any unmarked graves in this country. The Interior appears to be preparing for the worst.
The review of the federal boarding schools that operated from 1819 to 1969 aims to gather enrollment records, vital statistics, correspondence, maps, photographs and administrative reports. “Particular emphasis” will be placed on “potential burial sites,” and “unidentified human remains,” the Interior Department explained. For those long-forgotten victims, sitework will focus on “exhumation and repatriation.”
Yet even against that looming backdrop, the capacity for continued strength is on display throughout Indian Country, a reporter found. There are numerous instances revealing remarkable transformation and healing from the boarding school era.
Hopi journalist Patty Talahongva — now the executive producer of newscasts by Indian Country Today, a national nonprofit Indigenous affairs digital news publication — said she got her start in journalism at the boarding school she attended in Phoenix, Arizona in 1978 and 1979.
While Talahongva said she knows about the brutal history of her grandparents’ boarding school experiences, the year she spent at Phoenix Indian High School was different. Children were allowed to speak their languages freely. Cultural customs were celebrated, not suppressed. The overall experience, she said, made her more independent.
“People want to cling to this idea that it was always, always bad,” Talahongva said. “I would say there’s always good in whatever story, no matter how bad it got.”
As illustration, she noted that in April 2020, amid the devastation of the early pandemic, Indian Country Today launched its earlier newscasts from the Phoenix school campus, a place where students in her grandparents’ generation weren’t always encouraged to succeed.
“Those kids who went to school in that building were never encouraged to go to college, get a degree, or do whatever they wanted to do,” Talahongva said. “They were certainly never encouraged to become anchors and producers. I can hear our relatives laughing. It’s like, ‘take that, government. We’re using the building you put up to hold us down, and we’re broadcasting to the world.’”
Haaland, who identifies her family roots in New Mexico dating back 35 generations, is carrying on a similar legacy. Last month, the Interior secretary formally declared “squaw” a derogatory term, ordering replacement names for hundreds of valleys, lakes, creeks and other areas on federal lands.
In a sign of how Haaland has already altered the federal agency she leads, her department’s recent order to halt “legacies of oppression,” called the word “squaw” an ethnic, racial and sexist slur for Indigenous women.
In writing about her family’s history with boarding schools, Haaland has described recording her grandmother’s memories of being ripped from her home and taken to a boarding school. She said a priest “gathered the children from the village and put them on a train,” describing the loneliness and longing for family she would later endure. “It was an exercise in healing for her,” Haaland described, “and a profound lesson for me about the resilience of our people, and even more about how important it is to reclaim what those schools tried to take from our people.”
A version of this story was originally published by Gaylord News, a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.