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Congress explores creation of truth commission for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools

Survivors of a U.S. policy that forced Indigenous children to attend boarding schools where they were abused, or went missing, detailed to members of a U.S. House Natural Resources panel during a Thursday hearing the need for Congress to establish a truth commission dedicated to unveiling the traumas Indigenous children experienced at the schools.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) sponsored the bill, H.R. 5444, which would establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies. 

Thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to attend U.S. boarding schools with the goal of assimilation. Many children did not return home and their families were never notified of what happened to them.

Three survivors of boarding schools testified before the panel. James LaBelle, a member of the Native Village of Port Graham in Alaska, said during his time in an Indian boarding school, he was stripped of his name and instead given a number to replace his name, which in his Inupiaq language is Aqpayuq or “Fast Runner.”

Matthew War Bonnet, of the Sicangu Lakota people in Washington State, said he was only 6 years old when he was taken to the Saint Francis Boarding School in South Dakota in 1952. He said his experience was painful and traumatic. 

War Bonnet said he was frequently beaten, starved and isolated for days as punishment. When he would go back home for the summers, he found it difficult to talk to his parents in their Lakota language because he would be beaten by the priests if he spoke anything other than English. 

He added that not only the government needed to take accountability, but also the churches. Religious organizations had a significant role in the federal Indian boarding schools, about 50%.

“The Government gave the churches our lands to Christianize us, modernize us, and civilize us, but the churches treated us wrong,” he said. “The kids that went to these schools, they were good spirits and then the church did things to them and made them the way they were.”

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Dr. Ramona Klein, an enrolled member of the Turtle Band of Chippewa based in Belcourt, North Dakota, said her experience at the boarding school has impacted her life forever. She was 7 when she was taken from her family, her hair cut, starved and molested. 

“What I want from the United States are resources that can be used to help heal the deep wounds of the generations of Indigenous people who have been impacted by the United States’s boarding school policies and the treatment of Indigenous children,” she said.

The chair of the panel, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), said that Congress played a role by appropriating funds to send Indigenous children to these boarding schools. 

“Our own country allowed children to die in federally funded schools,” she said. 

She said the bill will also provide a hotline for families, and focus on the generational trauma that Indigenous families went through due to boarding schools. 

One of the witnesses, Deborah Parker, the chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in Minneapolis, said that one of the challenges of obtaining records from these boarding schools is churches, organizations and the federal government have not been cooperative in handing over records.

Leger Fernandez asked if subpoena power would be helpful, which Parker agreed that it would. 

“This would make it a formal record of the U.S. Congress and for all of us to understand the needs of our boarding school survivors,” Parker said. “This would hold public testimony that also opens the doors for those who attended church-run schools.” 

Rep. Jay Obernolte of California, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said that the experience that Indigenous children faced at the boarding schools were “nothing short than horrific.”

The hearing came a day after the release of a Department of Interior report that investigated the federal Indian boarding school system from 1819 to 1969 across the U.S., and found more than 400 schools and over 50 burial sites. 

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The report detailed methods of assimilation that Indigenous children experienced such as renaming them from their traditional names to English names; cutting their hair; discouraging or preventing the use of their traditional Indigenous languages, religions, and cultural practices; and organizing Indigenous children into units to perform military drills.

“It seems very clear that the harm that was done to native American tribes was unfortunately done, deliberately with the goal of not only forced cultural assimilation but also of achieving territorial disposition,” Obernolte said of the report released Wednesday.

Obernolte added that he wanted members of the committee to also consider if the truth commission should be allowed to have subpoena power, and whether the commission should be volunteer run or if those leading the investigations should receive compensation. The truth commission would cost about $200,000 a year. 

He expressed caution that allowing the commission to have subpoena power, which would give the panel the authority to request testimony from a witness, could come off as adversarial.

“We might be getting at the truth, but we may be delaying the healing,” he said. 

Parker said that the commission needs subpoena power because survivors of boarding schools are aging and it’s crucial to get the testimony of elders in their tribes, noting that many were lost due to COVID-19.

“It’s critically important before we lose these stories and our elders,” she said.

No other Republicans on the subcommittee joined the hearing. Those lawmakers are Reps. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of the American Samoa, Jerry Carl of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Cliff Bentz of Oregon. 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who is Catholic, said that she knows the Catholic church has covered up several abuses and believes that subpoena power should be granted to obtain those records. 

“(Subpoenas) can keep someone from stonewalling a commission or a group from getting to the truth,” she said.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records/Arizona Memory Project

Students at an unidentified Arizona Indian School in 1945.