Native American tribal elders who were once students at government-backed Indian boarding schools testified Saturday about the hardships they endured, including beatings, whipping, sexual assault, forced haircuts and painful nicknames.
They came from different states and different tribes, but shared the common experience of having attended schools that were designed to strip indigenous peoples of their cultural identities.
“I still feel that pain,” said Donald Neconie, 84, a former U.S. Marine and member of the Kiowa tribe who once attended the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, about 80 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. “I will never, ever forgive this school for what they did to me.
“It can be good now. But it wasn’t then.”
As the elders spoke, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history, listened in silence. The event at Riverside Indian School, still operating today but with a very different mission, was the first stop on a year-long national tour to learn about the painful experiences of Native Americans who were sent to government-backed boarding schools.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have affected every Indian I know,” Haaland said at the start of the event, which drew Native Americans from across the region. “Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry trauma in our hearts.
“My ancestors suffered through the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the very department I now head. This is the first time in history that a cabinet secretary has come to the table with this shared trauma.”
Haaland’s agency recently released a report that identified more than 400 of the schools, which sought to assimilate native children into white society during a period stretching from the late 18th century to the late 1960s.
Although most closed their doors long ago and none yet exist to strip students of their identities, some still function as schools, albeit with drastically different missions that celebrate the cultural backgrounds of their native students. Among them is Riverside, which is one of the oldest.
Riverside, which opened in 1871, currently serves students in grades four through twelve, offering specialized academic programs as well as courses on cultural topics such as beadwork, shawl-making and an introduction to art, food and tribal games. Currently operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, it has nearly 800 students from more than 75 tribes across the country, and the school’s administration, staff, and faculty are predominantly Native American.
It is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools across the country funded by the Office of Indian Education that seeks to provide education aligned with a tribe’s cultural and economic well-being needs, according to the office’s website.
But Riverside also has a dark history of mistreatment of the thousands of Native American students who were forced from their homes to attend.
Neconie, who still lives in Anadarko, remembers being beaten if he cried or spoke his native language, Kiowa, when he attended Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Every time I tried to speak Kiowa, they put bleach in my mouth,” he said. “It was 12 years of hell.”
Brought Plenty, a Standing Rock Sioux living in Dallas, recalled years spent in Indian boarding schools in South Dakota, where she was forced to cut her hair and told not to speak her native language. She recalled that she was forced to spank other girls with wet towels and punished when she didn’t.
“What they did to us makes you feel so inferior,” he said. “You never get over this. You never forget it.
Until recently, the federal government has not been open to examining its role in the troubled history of Native American boarding schools. But this has changed because people who know about the trauma that was inflicted are in high positions in government.
At least 500 children died in those schools, but that number is expected to reach the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is done.
The report from the Department of the Interior includes a list of boarding schools in what were states or territories that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and received support from the federal government.
Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona, which had 47, and New Mexico, which had 43. All three states still have significant Native American populations.
Alumni might be hesitant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policies were to eradicate the tribes and later assimilate them under the veil of education. But some welcome the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.
Not all the memories of those who attended the schools were painful.
Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, a Kiowa who attended Riverside in the 1940s, said she remembered learning to jitterbug in the school gym and learning to speak English for the first time. She also remembered the older Kiowa women who served as housekeepers in the dormitories, who allowed her to speak her native language and treated her with kindness.
“They helped me,” WhiteHorse said. “I am one of the happy ones.”
But WhiteHorse also had some haunting memories, including the time he said three young children ran away from home and got caught in a snowstorm. She said all three froze to death.
“I think we need a memorial for those children,” he said.