ANADARKO, Oklahoma– Native American elders, who were once students at government-backed Indian boarding schools, testified Saturday of the hardships they endured, including beatings, flogging, sexual assault, forced haircuts and painful nicknames.
They came from different states and different tribes, but they shared the common experience of having attended the schools designed to strip indigenous peoples of their cultural identity.
“I still feel that pain,” said Donald Neconie, 84, a former U.S. Marine and member of the Kiowa tribe who once ran the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) southwest of Oklahoma City. visited. I will never forgive this school for what they did to me.
“Maybe it’s good now. But it wasn’t then.”
As the elders spoke, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history, listened quietly. The event at the Riverside Indian School, which still operates today but has an entirely different mission, was the first stop on a year-long nationwide tour to hear about the painful experiences of Native Americans being sent to government-sponsored boarding schools became.
“The federal Indian boarding school policy has touched every indigenous person I know,” said Haaland at the beginning of the event, which attracted Indians from across the region. “Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry the trauma in our hearts.
“My ancestors endured the horrors of the assimilation policy of Indian boarding schools, carried out by the same 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 that attempted to integrate Indigenous children into white society during a period that spanned from the late 18th century to the late 1960s.
Although most closed their doors long ago and there are still none to strip students of their identities, some still function as schools, albeit with drastically different missions that celebrate the cultural background of their native students. Among them is Riverside, one of the oldest.
Riverside, which opened in 1871, now serves fourth through twelfth graders, offering them specialized academic programs as well as courses on cultural subjects such as beadwork, shawl making, and an introduction to tribal arts, food, and 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 largely Native American.
It is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools nationwide funded by the Bureau of Indian Education that strive to provide education tailored to a tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being, according to the bureau’s website.
But Riverside also has a dark history of mistreatment of thousands of Native American students who were forced from their homes to attend.
Neconie, who still lives in Anadarko, recalled being hit when he cried or spoke his native language, Kiowa, when he visited Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Every time I tried to talk to Kiowa, they put lye 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 forbidden to speak her native language . She recalled being forced to whip other girls with wet towels and being punished if she didn’t.
“What they did to us makes you feel so inferior,” she said. “You’ll never get over it. You never forget it.”
Until recently, the federal government had been unwilling to investigate its role in the troubled history of Native American boarding schools. But that has changed because people aware of the trauma inflicted are in prominent positions in government.
At least 500 children have died in such schools, but that number is expected to number in the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is conducted.
The Department of the Interior report lists state or territory boarding schools that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and were supported by the federal government.
Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona at 47, and New Mexico at 43. All three states still have significant Native American populations.
Former students might be reluctant to share the painful past and trust a government whose policies aim to exterminate tribes and later assimilate them under the guise of education. But some are welcoming the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.
Not all of the school-goers’ memories were painful.
Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, a Kiowa who visited Riverside in the 1940s, said she remembers learning to dance the jitterbug and speak English for the first time in the school’s grammar school. She also remembered older Kiowa women who served as house moms in the dormitories, letting them speak their native language and treating them kindly.
“I was helped,” said WhiteHorse. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
But WhiteHorse also had some disturbing memories, including the time she said three boys ran away from the house and got caught in a snowstorm. She said all three froze to death.
“I think we need a memorial for these guys,” she said.
Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.