Survivors of Native American boarding schools bolster calls for truth commission

Aaron Schwartz

Survivors of Native American boarding schools delivered emotional testimony in front of a House panel Thursday, recalling stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in facilities that were part of U.S. policies to strip children of their native culture, and supporting efforts to create a truth commission to investigate the period. 

The hearing comes on the heels of the explosive Interior Department report that concluded the deaths of over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children happened at Indian boarding schools run by the federal government between 1819 and 1969. That number is expected to climb, with the report predicting the total number of children who died at the schools would be in the thousands to tens of thousands.

House lawmakers are now pushing for a commission to investigate the impact of the government’s Indian boarding school policies, with survivors lobbying in support of the effort and offering details of their childhood after being removed from their families and ushered into what they described as abusive assimilation camps.

James LaBelle Sr., a member of Native Village of Port Graham in Alaska, is a survivor of one such boarding school. He told lawmakers of his time in the schools as a child, beginning in the 1950s, detailing attempts to rid him and others of their Native heritage.

LaBelle and other survivors reported similar stories of having their hair cut, being beaten for speaking Native languages, being stripped of Native identities and falling victim to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

“I’ve been waiting 67 years to tell this story,” LaBelle told the panel. “While I might have received a white man’s education, in the process I lost my own language, my own culture, my traditions.”

The Interior Department report described a dark history that the survivors said remains hidden even in Native communities.

“All us kids that attended boarding school, we never speak about our experience in the school,” said Matthew War Bonnet, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota in his seventies. “I guess we just didn’t want to hurt each other.”

War Bonnet said the history of the boarding schools left survivors traumatized, with many turning to alcohol and becoming abusers themselves.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, introduced the resolution to establish the commission, which has garnered bipartisan support. Davids, whose family includes boarding school survivors, said the commission would document the history through public hearings and a final report within five years of its creation.

“Children were coerced and compelled to attend boarding schools away from their home,” Davids said. “Many children did not return to their families or their communities.”

War Bonnet said those responsible for the policies and for kids’ treatment at the schools must be held accountable.

“The Government needs to help those children and grandchildren of the boarding school survivors, so that these children and grandchildren will know that their grandparents were not just mean all the time,” War Bonnet said in written testimony. “I want them to know that their grandparents loved them, but we were struggling from the abuse we went through at the boarding schools.“

The first volume of the Interior Department report identified a widespread organization of 408 federally run schools and more than 50 burial sites. A second volume is expected to examine the burial sites in more detail.

Tags Indian boarding schools Native Americans Sharice Davids Sharice Davids

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