For Native American people like La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow, the opportunity to tell stories about abuse and neglect at the hands of federal Indian boarding schools policies is an opportunity to heal.
Crow, the president and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Alaskan native communities thrive, described her family’s experience with boarding schools during testimony at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing Wednesday.
“My mother asked [my grandmother] a question about her experience with boarding schools, and my grandmother responded, ‘I can tell you what happened physically, but I still can’t talk about what happened inside,’” Crow said.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the Senate committee discussed a path forward in the wake of a U.S. Department of Interior investigative report into the experiences of Native American children who attended 408 boarding schools between 1819 and 1969. The commission also discussed a Senate bill that would establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Boarding School Policies, which Native American advocates like Crow say is a crucial first step to the healing of Native American people.
The bill and the Interior Department investigations mark the first time the federal government has acknowledged the impacts of the boarding school policies.
“This commission will open up a pathway where these stories from people, who are now elders, will be heard,” Crow said.
The ‘road to healing’
The report’s findings were a harrowing description of what Native American students endured. Schools prevented students from interacting with their families or communities, forced them to stop speaking their native language, made them perform manual labor, cut their hair, and, in some instances, covered up their deaths.
The department identified marked or unmarked burial sites at 53 schools across the United States, and officials expect to discover more. The findings have launched an Interior Department initiative, involving a “road to healing” tour to hear directly from survivors of the school.
“We know this won’t be easy but it is a history that we must learn from if we are to heal from this tragic era,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position.
Haaland choked back tears as she shared her testimony Wednesday. Her grandparents were among the children removed from their families to attend the boarding schools when they were 8 years old until they turned 18.
The bill to establish the Truth and Healing Commission, which was introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would take the Interior Department’s work further. The commission would be dedicated to investigating and documenting human rights violations caused by the boarding school policies and their intergenerational impact on American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
The commission would also be tasked with holding public hearings for Native American communities to “testify, discuss, and add to the documentation of the impacts of the physical, psychological and spiritual violence of Indian boarding schools.”
The commission will develop recommendations for the federal government to acknowledge and heal the trauma caused by the boarding school policies. The recommendations would include resources and assistance, establishing a nationwide hotline for survivors and family members, and recommendations to prevent any modern-day attempts to remove Native American children from their families and communities.
“It’s one thing to share your story within your home or in your community but it’s another [thing] to share it where it’s going to be validated by the outside entities that brought this on,” said Sandra White Hawk, president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “It brings a healing in itself.”