Friday, January 27, 2023

United States: Indigenous people report trauma left behind by boarding schools

As a seventh grader at the Phoenix Indian School, Parsley Ami went there on what were called “outings,” an opportunity for Indian students to earn money off campus.

The opportunity was to get cheap labour.

Ami said most people are unaware that school staff sent students to work, often in menial labor and for strangers who were not background checked.

“A family came, picked me up and took me home. They asked me to pick up dog waste at my house,’ Ami said during a session held Friday at the Gila River Indian Community, a short drive south of Phoenix, overseen by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The session is part of a tour called “Camino a la Curación”, which includes victims of boarding schools for indigenous peoples who receive government funding. This was the fourth such nomination for the first and only secretary of the federal government of indigenous descent, following those done in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Michigan.

Hopi Indian Ami, 67, who lives near Laven, still vividly remembers being refused to clean up the house and its aftermath.

“I was severely punished for not doing what the family asked me to do. I was never allowed to take another route,” he said. “Then I started to wonder what happened to some of the boys who went on those outings that no one followed.”

Ami was one of several people who testified before a large audience during Haaland’s trip to Arizona, which included Gov. Katie Hobbs and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego.

Many testimonies addressed issues other than abuse, such as loss of culture and language. The session took place in the multipurpose room of Gila Crossing Community School, where artwork and banners reflect the heritage of the local tribe.

“This is one of many more steps we will take to strengthen and rebuild relationships with Indigenous communities,” Haaland said before the session, which sought to dismantle federal policies on Indigenous boarding schools.

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States created laws and policies to establish and fund schools. They claimed that they intended to “civilize” the Native Americans, including those in Alaska and Hawaii, but they often engaged in abusive practices.

There were 47 federal Indian boarding schools in Arizona alone, and that number does not even include religious and private institutions that received federal funding to run the schools.

Haaland said, “My forefathers and many of theirs endured the horrors of the integration policies of Indigenous boarding schools now carried out by the Department I lead.” “This is the first time in history that the cabinet secretaries of the United States have come together at a table with shared trauma.”

Haaland has prioritized a public review of the trauma caused by these schools. In May, the Department of the Interior released a report—the first of its kind—in which it singled out 408 federally funded schools that denied Native American cultures and identities. At least 500 children have been killed in some schools. This number will surely increase as more research is done.

Most of the speakers were descendants of boarding school victims. He shared how his parents had difficulty learning to be good parents because they were separated from their parents, some at a very young age. Ami, whose father was also in a boarding school, recalled how he used to call himself “just a stupid Indian”.

“I think he finally shed the image of being a ‘silly indigenous person,'” Amy said. “But he never stopped referring to himself with that phrase.”

The vulnerability of the victims has brought tears to every session. However, Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Coalition for Healing for American Indian Boarding Schools and a member of the Tulip Tribes, said there are also feelings of hope.

“There’s a sense of encouragement. Yes, we can finally tell our stories and maybe we can start to heal,” Parker said. “Those tears help cleanse the feelings we’ve kept inside, sometimes for generations.”

According to Parker, Congress plans to re-introduce a bill to establish a “truth and remediation commission” related to boarding schools. It would be similar to the one installed in Canada in 2008. If approved, it would override the Department of the Interior’s authority to investigate and issue subpoenas at federally funded boarding schools.

Meanwhile, a second report is pending on an investigation of prisoners conducted by Haaland, which pertains to the Laguna Pueblo Indian Community in New Mexico. It will focus on graves, the schools’ impact on Indigenous communities and seek accountability for federal resources allocated to the troubled program.

Nation World News Desk
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