Onamia, MN — On June 3, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe hosted the U.S. Department of Interior’s seventh “Road to Healing” session in Onamia, Minnesota. At the federal government’s year-long listening session, survivors of federal Indian boarding schools are invited to share their experiences with the Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, and the Assistant Secretary of Interior, Bryan Newland.
The “Road to Healing” tour is part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative launched by U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, an enrolled citizen of the Laguna Pueblo. Haaland launched the initiative on June 22, 2021, after she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the first American Indian person to be confirmed to serve in a President’s Cabinet. Haaland’s announcement came a month after the remains of 215 children were found buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The session was opened by a procession led by Little Otter Singers, of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, where tribal leadership and veterans presented the colors and flags of the tribe, the nation, and branches of the military. Melanie Benjamin, the Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe welcomed Secretary Haaland and the Department of Interior.
“You have done more than any other Cabinet member that has come before you,” said Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin to Secretary Haaland on Saturday, June 3. “That is not flattery, that is the truth. Chi-miigwetch to you, Secretary [Bryan] Newland and your entire team for the hard work that you do on behalf of Indian Country.”
In conjunction with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, the Secretary of Interior directed the Assistant Secretary — Indian Affairs to lead the first department-wide investigation into the federal Indian boarding school system. On May 11, 2022, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released the first volume of the boarding school investigation. In its initial report, the investigation shows that between 1819 and 1969 the federal government operated or funded 408 federal Indian boarding schools across 37 states, or then-territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven schools in Hawai’i.
In the report, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that it found evidence that the United States targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children to dispossess them of their territory by forcing Indigenous children to boarding schools. In addition, the report revealed that approximately 50 percent of federal Indian boarding schools received funding or support from a religious organization or institution.
“Federal officials believed they could indoctrinate, change, and control Indian children while dividing up their homelands at the same time,” said Benjamin. “These kids would become adults and no longer needed or cared about their homelands or their culture. Of course, they were wrong.”
Benjamin went on to share information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where Ukrainian children are taken by Russian soldiers invading their lands and shipping them as far away as Siberia. “Russia sends these children to what they call ‘child custody centers’ spread throughout Russia,” she said. “Children’s who’s ages range from toddler to teenager are being held in these facilities.”
NPR reported earlier this year in May that the Russian government is operating an organized network of child custody centers for thousands of Ukrainian children. If true, the operation could be a potential war crime, by way of unconsented custody and control of thousands of children.
The “Road to Healing” tour is a year-long initiative throughout the nation that gives survivors of federal Indian boarding schools and their descendants an opportunity to share their experiences with the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Interior. Testimony will be documented as a permanent collection of oral histories and will contribute to an overall report like to be published later in 2023.
“Boarding schools have touched every Indigenous person I know,” said U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland. “Some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry this painful legacy in our hearts. Deeply ingrained in so many of us is the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted.”
“My ancestors, and many of yours, have endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the department that I now lead,” Haaland said. “This is the first time in history the United States Cabinet Secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma.”
Survivors of Indian boarding schools shared their memories of witnessing other children lost and scared, being abused for mistakenly speaking their language, and never seeing family again.
“We can see clearly the effects, the trauma, that so many people suffered,” said Rose Barber of the Lac Courte Band of Ojibwe on Saturday, June 3.
“People died there [in boarding schools],” said Barber. “They were just taken out and just buried. In our culture, we’re used to helping our people go on a journey to the spirit world.”
Grace T. Andreoff Smith, Yupik from Alaska, 81, spoke of her boarding school experience in Holy Cross, Alaska. When she arrived at boarding school, she was separated from her brother and she never saw him again. She went to boarding school at the Holy Cross Mission Boarding School, a place of trauma for her. “To this day, I call it the ‘hell place’,” said Grace T. Andreoff Smith at the listening session.
When she asked about the whereabouts of her brother, she was repeatedly told “none of your business” until she was hit. “These memories of being a child are coming back,” she said.
There are many other Indian boarding school records that are in private institutions, archives, and collections in both the United States and abroad. Entities outside the country are exempt from any federal laws, policies, or memorandums and finding accurate documentation of Indian boarding schools is likely to be problematic. Nonetheless, the department-wide effort to investigate the history of Indian boarding schools is a first, and is likely to continue under Secretary Haaland’s leadership.
Next steps identified by the Dept. of Interior (DOI) include identifying burial sites, both marked and unmarked graves at schools across the country. In its initial report on May 11, 2022, the DOI identified 53 marked and unmarked grave sites at or near federal Indian boarding schools.
Another spoke of old boarding school sites that are no longer accessible. “Our old boarding school is all private land now, it’s all been developed,” said Glenda Barber, a Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe (Wisconsin) Tribal citizen on Saturday, June 3. “I don’t know how we’re going to prove anything.”
In total, 21 federal Indian boarding schools were operated in Minnesota, of 431 separate federal Indian boarding schools. It is unknown the number of students who attended federal Indian boarding school, but that is one of the aims of the investigation. The DOI is asking for federal support to continue investigating and as of this week, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States.
The bill was introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and aims to address trauma inflicted by federal Indian boarding school policies. According to the bill, various reports were cited that American Indian and Alaska Native communities continue to experience intergenerational trauma resulting from experiences in Indian boarding schools. If passed, the bill provide funding for resources and assistance that the Federal Government should provide to aid in the healing of the trauma caused by the Indian Boarding School Policies, such as an increase in funding for behavioral or mental health services.
The bill would also protect unmarked graves, support repatriation, and stop modern-day Indian child removal policies.
Watch our coverage of the Road to Healing session at Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona on January 20, 2023, below.