Az survivors, descendants share stories of Indian boarding schools
Sitting on a chair in the middle of a crowded gym, Hopi woman Pershlie Ami talked softly into the microphone to share her experience about going to Phoenix Indian School when she was a kid.
“I don’t speak my language, I don’t know my culture as well as I would like to, and that was the result of the boarding school era,” Ami said.
That era began before her experiences.
Ami’s father, Pershing Ami, was sent to Phoenix Indian School when he was a boy, and she said his treatment there was much harsher than hers. She said the boarding school’s impact on his life left him afraid to teach his children the Hopi language and culture.
“He was afraid that we would be beaten for it,” Ami said, remembering her dad telling them how the people at the boarding school always referred to Indigenous kids as “dumb Indians.”
Ami said her father talked about how they were severely punished for speaking their language, had to get their hair cut, and were treated as if they were in the military.
He constantly tried to run away, Ami said, because “he wanted to go home; a lot of them did.”
Ami shared her experience with a large crowd inside the Gila Crossing Community School on Jan. 20 as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Road to Healing tour. The event was held on the Gila River Indian Community.
Ami was one of several Indigenous people who shared their stories with Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. The Road to Healing tour is part of Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding School initiative, which started in 2021 to examine the legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies. The tour launched in 2022 after the Department of Interior released its first investigative report.
“My ancestors, many of yours, endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna people, said. “This is the first time in history that a United States cabinet secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma. That is not lost on me, and I’m determined to use my position for the good of people.”
For the first time in history, the Department of Interior investigated the federal Indian boarding school system across the U.S. and identified more than 400 schools and over 50 burial sites.
During the event, Newland said that he understands that the federal records and documents coming out of the boarding schools can only tell so much, which is why getting testimonies from people’s experiences is “crucial to telling the whole story.”
“We want to make sure that, in addition to doing the investigative work, we’re painting that full picture,” Newland said. “We’re going to continue our investigation.”
Arizona was home to 47 of those schools attended by Indigenous children who were taken away from their families by the federal government, which attempted to assimilate them through education — and, often, physical punishment.
The legacy of the federal Indian boarding school system is not new among Indigenous communities. For centuries, Indigenous people across the county have experienced the loss of their culture, traditions, language, and land. But this is the first time survivors share their stories on a federal level.
“Our goal is to create opportunities for people to share their stories but also to help connect communities with trauma-informed support and to facilitate the collection of a permanent oral history,” Haaland said.
Road to Healing in Arizona
The visit to Gila Crossing Community School was the fourth stop in the tour, and the first in Arizona — but not the last, as the tour will make a second stop in Arizona on the Navajo Nation on Jan. 22.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, who opened the event, spoke about how the gathering is solemn because it focuses on a painful history and period of federal Indian policy, the boarding school era.
Lewis said the boarding school era is when many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their communities and families for one purpose, to transform the children by taking away their culture, language, hair, community and sense of belonging.
“Tens of thousands of Native children were removed to federal boarding schools,” Lewis said. “Those children were forever changed by their experiences, and many of those who were fortunate enough to make it home still bear the scars of that period.”
But the trauma from that era has remained buried for too long because many could not speak about it — but this federal initiative is helping survivors, families and advocates share their stories.
Lewis said he was proud the Gila Crossing Community School was selected to host the event because it’s a great example of how far federally funded schooling for Indigenous children has come.
“The community’s culture is everywhere,” Lewis said of the school. “It’s on the walls and in the walls themselves and appears throughout our curriculum.”
Lewis said the school was built for their community, but it was built in partnership with the Department of Interior, and it is a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school.
It is a modern, state-of-the-art federal Indian school, he said, and “this school is a far cry from a boarding school. It’s a school where our children feel safe.”
Before Lewis turned the mic over to Haaland and Newland, he thanked Gov. Katie Hobbs and U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who sat in the front row and listened to the community share their stories.
Haaland also acknowledged their presence during her speech, noting that Hobbs is the first governor to attend a Road to Healing event.
“I’m here to listen to you,” Haaland said. “Your voices are important to me, and I thank you for your willingness to speak through the pain and share your stories with us.”
“Federal Indian Boarding School policies touched every single Indigenous person I know,” Haaland said. “Some are survivors, some are descendants — but we all carry the trauma in our hearts.”
Haaland said that, as people share their stories, she will listen, grieve and weep alongside them.
“I will feel the pain you feel as we mourn what we have lost,” she said, adding she also wants people to know that there is still a lot to gain. The Gila Crossing School is an example of that, Haaland said, because it’s the type of healing that helps Indigenous communities.
“The healing that can help our communities will not be done overnight, but I know it can be done,” Haaland said.
The DOI investigation continues. Newland said the next steps include identifying marked and unmarked burial sites and determining how much money the federal government invested into operating the system for more than a century.
Before testimonies started, Newland acknowledged how hard it is for people to open up about boarding schools, which is why trauma therapists and counselors were available if needed. He recommended that, if a break is needed at any time during their testimony, they take it because it can be triggering.
“These are hard conversations. We know that. We’re resurfacing a lot of pain in your communities and your families,” Newland said. “We really want all of us here to take care of ourselves. We want you to take care of yourself.”
Every experience is different
Several people shared their experiences with boarding schools. Some people talked about how they had family members impacted by it or remembered hearing stories about them.
April Ignacio, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation, was the second person to give testimony during the event, and she shared her family’s story.
Ignacio introduced herself in her traditional O’odham language before sharing her family’s experiences as a result of the federal government policies for Indigenous people and communities.
“My family, in particular, has five generations of boarding school attendees and survivors,” Ignacio said. “Thank you for providing this opportunity to go on record. As we all know, not everyone has had the same experiences.”
Ignacio shared the experiences of who their family called “younger grandmother.” Her name was Elizabeth Ignacio Antone, and she was the younger sister of their grandmother, Susie Ignacio Enos.
They both went to Tucson Indian School, known to their family as Escuela, Ignacio said, and they both processed the trauma very differently.
“The abuse they suffered during their time at Escuela continues to impact our familia in ways I am still peeling back and processing,” Ignacio said. “When my younger grandmother’s dementia began to worsen, she told the same stories; one of those stories that I can recite was about how her tongue was split for speaking O’odham.”
Ignacio said her younger grandmother was a great storyteller and always tried to make people laugh. She was telling them stories in their traditional language to comfort the Akimel and Tohono O’odham children at the boarding school.
“She was caught speaking in O’odham trying to comfort these children, trying to make them laugh so they could forget about being sad,” Ignacio said. “The missionaries heard her and took out clothes pins to teach my younger grandma a lesson.”
They put the clothes pins on her tongue, and Ignacio said her younger grandmother sat at a desk for hours as blood and saliva dripped down her hands and onto her dress.
“The trauma of that experience for my younger grandmother ended with not wanting those same experiences for her own children; my aunts and uncles do not speak O’odham,” Ignacio said.
Ignacio’s grandmother, Enos, processed the abuse differently. She attended the same school as her younger sister, but Ignacio said Enos became the first linguist for the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“So, two sisters who both attended the same boarding school during the same time processed and dealt with the trauma of noting being allowed to speak the language in two completely different ways,” she said.
Boarding school outings
Ami, the Hopi woman who was sent to Phoenix Indian School, spoke about growing up in Polacca on the Hopi Nation in northern Arizona. She made a point of acknowledging the 19 Hopi men who were imprisoned in 1895 for their resistance against the U.S. government.
“They would not allow the children to be taken from their homes, and they hid them in the rocks,” Ami said, and federal authorities sent them to Alcatraz Island for their efforts to protect their children. “They took the initiative to say, we’re not going to let our children be indoctrinated and we don’t want our children to leave the reservation.”
“I wanna honor all the parents of the children that were taken away,” Ami said. These families were left not knowing if they were OK or how to get in contact with them.
“If you can imagine watching your child be yanked from your arms, not knowing if you’ll ever see them again,” Ami said. “When you take a child away from a mother or father, it can be devastating.”
Ami attended Phoenix Indian Boarding School when she was in seventh grade from 1969 to 1970, and even though it was for only a year, she remembers it vividly.
“We were taught at the Indian School that you just follow directions. You do what you’re told,” Ami said of her time at Phoenix Indian.
She recalled how the students were treated like they were in military school. They would get detention, carry out work details and line up when they went to eat or went back to their dorm.
Students were also sent on what the school called “outings,” Ami said, where they were given a chance to earn money. Ami said that the school allowed people from the Phoenix area to come by the school and pick up kids to use them for paid labor.
“People didn’t really know who they were sending these kids out with,” she said, but they were taken to their homes and did whatever they asked.
“I was told that when we go on outings, it’s a privilege,” Ami said.
During her one and only outing, Ami said a family came to the school, picked her up, and drove her back to their house. Once she entered their home, the family gave her one task: pick up the dog’s poop.
“That’s the outing that they wanted me to do, and I refused to do it,” Ami said, telling the family she was not going to “pick up dog crap.”
The family was upset and sent her back to Phoenix Indian School, where Ami said she was punished for not doing what the family asked her to. Her punishment involved extra duties, including scrubbing the floors, cooking and cleaning the bathrooms.
“I was never allowed to go on another outing,” she said. “I was told that, because I wouldn’t do what they asked (me) to do, I’m ruining it for everybody else.”
Ami also recalled when she and a friend ran away from school. She said they successfully got off school grounds, but soon realized they didn’t know what they were doing.
“We ran down Central, and we didn’t know where we were going,” She said. They did not know how to get home, who to ask for help, or even a place to stay in the Phoenix area.
“We knew we had to go back,” Ami said, and they did. They returned to Phoenix Indian School and figured they would be in a lot of trouble upon their return, but that wasn’t the case.
“When we got back, we realized nobody missed us. They didn’t even care that we were gone,” Ami said, and she remembers feeling that nobody cared whether they were there.
The experiences shared during the Road to Healing tour were just a few of many impacted by the legacy of the federal Indian boarding school system. The Department of Interior documents each of the hearings and intends to release a report on the hearings in the future.
For more information about the boarding school initiative, visit the Department of Interiors website.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.