“We have each other as healers. We are no longer alone.”
Stories of resilience and calls for accountability and restitution highlighted the Second Annual National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Summit on November 20 and 21, 2021. The theme of the Summit was “Healing in a Time of Truth and Justice.”
The virtual format allowed participants from all over the United States and the world to safely listen, observe and participate in the Summit. Tribal elders, NABS board members, keynote speakers, academics, and youth activists told their stories and called for justice. The collective result was two full days of intense education, healing, motivation and self-empowerment, all enveloped in traditional Native American prayers and memorial songs.
Sandy White Hawk, Sicangu Lakota, President of the NABS Board of Directors, said on day one of the Summit, “(Even though we cannot be together physically during the pandemic), we can connect spiritually and emotionally. The way we heal is by being together…Zoom [a virtual meeting platform] has been a gift to us [during the pandemic when we cannot safely meet in person].” Later in the day she reiterated, “We have each other as healers. We are no longer alone.”
Remarkably, in the two-day event which included first-hand accounts of genocide and horrific crimes against humanity, there was not a hint of self-pity or helpless victimhood. The consistent tone was one of resilience, unity and determination to bring justice for children who died at the boarding schools, for survivors, and for their families.
Christine Diindiisi McCleave of the Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe and CEO of NABS, reminded Summit participants, “If we carry intergenerational trauma, we also carry intergenerational wisdom and resilience. It’s in our genes and DNA…We heal as we learn. We heal as we speak the truth. We heal as we demand justice.”
Deborah Parker of the Tulalip Tribes and Director of Policy and Advocacy for NABS said, “We are here alive. We have a story to tell for our future generations and for those not here.”
The survivors, descendants of survivors, and historians who spoke at the Summit described the historical boarding schools as “dungeons and death camps…prisoner of war camps…America’s best kept secret.”
They reported the following as common at the Boarding Schools: rampant sexual abuse/forcible rape of both male and female students, physical abuse sometimes resulting in death, “constant brutality,” being forced to eat lye soap when a student was overheard speaking their native language, a total lack of privacy, total estrangement from family and homeland, starvation, beatings with big black straps or whips, extreme spiritual abuse, and forced sterilizations of both male and female students.
Children who survived the abuse witnessed careless, thoughtless disposal of the remains of those who died, sometimes in mass unmarked graves. Some of the girls who were sexually abused became pregnant and bore babies, undeniable evidence of the abuse. One survivor remembered seeing a baby being thrown into a furnace.
Amy Marie George (also called “Ta-ah” or Grandmother), a powerful matriarch of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and a survivor of an Indian Boarding School, said, “Suicide was common [among the students] …The schools were built for us to die. There were no graduates, only survivors. There were no playgrounds, only cemeteries.”
When an elder survivor briefly became tearful telling his story, moderator White Hawk affirmed, “Tears are meant to cleanse our spirits, our minds, and our bodies…Tears become your superpower.” Referring to the fact that the tearful elder was male, White Hawk said, “The heart has no gender.”
Moderators repeatedly asked diverse speakers, “What would justice look like?”
Dr. Denise Lajimodiere of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and NABS co-founder said, “Each tribe must decide what healing will look like…Funding for healing must always be the focus.” McCleave declared, “We (Indigenous people) have to be the ones setting the terms for justice. The question must be, ‘What do survivors want to see done?’”
Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Vice-President of Quinault Indian Nation, noted, “We still do not know where our babies are!” and called for a complete accounting of missing children and research with modern ground penetrating radar at all historic Indian Boarding Schools to discover any and all skeletal remains.
She added, ““We must draw a line to say NO MORE. Our generation must draw the line. Our ancestors have called us to this work…It is our sacred duty and responsibility.”
Lajimodiere and other presenters listed the following as possible components of restitution for survivors and their families: acknowledgement of harms done followed by evidence of change and transformation, support for survivors being triggered by recent publicity about boarding schools, respectful rematriation of skeletal remains of children still buried at Indian Boarding Schools at the expense of the Federal government, consequences for the perpetrators of the abuse, a national Truth and Healing Commission, and “wraparound services” for survivors and their descendants.
Services provided through wraparound programs could include, for example, case management (service coordination), counseling (individual, family, group, youth, and vocational), crisis care and outreach, education services, family support, independent living supports, self-help or support groups, psychiatric consultation, community-based in-patient psychiatric care, health services, legal services, residential treatment, respite care, small therapeutic group care, and transportation.
There were occasional brief expressions of righteous anger all supported by the consensus. Amy Marie George said, “There’s nothing wrong with us. There’s something wrong with those who did this to us…Apologies from the government mean nothing.”
Mitch Walking Elk (Cheyenne and Arapaho) was sent to an Oklahoma boarding school at age six and after several years was expelled for chronically running away. He eventually ended up in prison and said the prison experience was no different from the boarding school. In fact, the coping skills he learned at the boarding school were the skills he used to survive in prison.
Walking Elk said, “I’m glad the story is getting out. I hope there are consequences for the perpetrators and the perpetrators are VAST.” He then declared, “I’m not brainwashed. I’m not defeated. THERE WILL BE NO SURRENDER.”
Nedra Darling is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a proud Cherokee Nation descendent. She is the co-founder of Bright Path Strong (brightpathstrong.org), created to share and amplify authentic Native American voices and stories, past and present, through filmmaking. She summarized the resilience theme by saying, “We are strong and we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.”
In the closing ceremony, Sandy White Hawk noted, “It wasn’t our fault and we don’t have to bear that shame. The essence of us is shining today. That’s who we are. YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, MY RELATIVE!”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of features about the National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Summit which took place on November 20 – 21, 2021. In the weeks and months to come, readers of the West River Eagle will see more stories from the 2021 Summit.
Highlights included keynotes from tribal leaders, a panel of elders who survived boarding school experiences, updates on proposed federal legislation to create a National Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools, and a panel of Indigenous youth active in their communities advocating for boarding school truth, healing and justice, including youth from the Rose Bud and Pine Ridge reservations.