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Healing the Intergenerational Trauma of Indian Boarding Schools

Healing the Intergenerational Trauma of Indian Boarding Schools

While Indigenous Peoples Day has come and gone, the intergenerational trauma of Indian boarding schools is still very much present in Native communities and needs to be actively acknowledged and addressed.

Beginning in 1871, “Congress officially confirmed the altered status of Indians: they were now deemed to be wards of the government, a colonized people.” During that same time, policymakers approved and operated 100 boarding schools on and off reservations and required all Native American children to attend.  According to the 1969 Edward “Ted” Kennedy Report, students at federal boarding schools were forbidden to express their culture — everything from wearing long hair to speaking even a single word of their indigenous language. Consequently, many lost their language and their given Indian names. The government manipulated Native American parents into believing that sending their children to Indian boarding schools was beneficial to them. Instead, many children were taken by force, and even worse, they were never heard from again. Unmarked child graves have also been discovered under old boarding school buildings all across the US.

The topic of intergenerational boarding school trauma hits close to home. I descend from the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. This tribal nation experienced colonization beginning with the American colonial expansion into the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s when the Nez Perce people discovered Lewis and Clark exploring their land. Missionaries Samuel Parker, and then Henry Spaulding, and his wife Eliza Spalding were later sent by the American Board of Foreign Missions to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho to convert the Nez Perce people into religious “civilized” Indians. Due to the lack of religious interest by the Nez Perce, young children were sent away to Indian Boarding Schools.

My late grandmother, Shirley Cloud, is the great-grandmother of Elsie Cloud, granddaughter and daughter of Benjamin Piles of Cloud. As a little girl, my grandmother told me stories of how Nez Perce men were encouraged to cut their long traditional hair and stop wearing their cultural regalia. They went from wearing traditional regalia to wearing Euro-centric garbs and shoes. She was told not to speak Nimiipuutimpt (the Nez Perce language) and witnessed family and friends being discouraged from speaking their native tongue in the presence of the missionaries and white people. There are now very few native language speakers left in the tribe.

In the last 10 years, national attention has emerged about the boarding school tragedies as more Native peoples are using their voices to increase awareness of their experiences at Indian boarding schools.  A few national initiatives have developed to spark specific action including the National Day of Remembrance. September 30th is Orange T-shirt Day, named for a child who had her shiny new T-shirt taken from her on her first day at a residential school. The T-shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was never returned. In 2021, the first Native American US Interior Secretary was voted into office. Deb Haaland launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, including the “Road to Healing” Tour and the Oral History Project. On June 22, 2021, Deb Haaland stated, “The purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities.” In, 2022 the Department of the Interior Investigative Report, Outlined the next steps in the federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

 As the nation recognizes a few days throughout the year, Native people are working through the understandable feelings of anger, resentment, and grief by participating in healing circles, revitalizing their native language, decolonizing educational curriculum, seeking counseling, and demanding acknowledgment of the historical trauma of Indigenous peoples by the Catholic church and the US government.

Educators and community allies can also take specific actions and increase the visibility of  Native Americans by doing the following:

The road to healing is a journey and not a destination. As we try to heal, and the US faces the truth of our history, it is important that the voices from the grave are no longer silenced and the living survivors’ stories are heard. Colonization took land, language, and culture to silence Native people.  The US can no longer ignore the cries that echo from the graves. The time for healing and recompense is now.

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