Stories of Trauma and Illness Emerge As New Federal Report Investigates Scope of Native Boarding Schools

“I have been waiting to tell this story for my entire life,” Jim LaBelle Sr., or Aqpayuq in Inupiaq, wrote in a statement about his experiences at a Native American boarding school. “I come to you as an assimilated man, as an acculturated man. While I received an education and met all of the economic standards of your culture, I lost my family. I cannot speak my language. I cannot do the traditional fishing and gathering I learned as a child.”

He is one of several elders who shared their firsthand accounts at the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. in Washington, D.C., on May 12. They gathered in support of the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act,” a bill that aims to investigate and document the forced assimilation of Native people, and the lasting impacts that has had.

The federal Indian boarding school system operated from the early 19th century until the late 1960s. During its 150 year history, the government ran 408 Native American boarding schools across 37 states, including 21 school in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii, according to a newly released report that marks the first official account of the history of Native boarding schools. After generations of advocacy by Indigenous people, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched an investigation that resulted in the report, in partnership with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and led by the first Native American Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland.

“This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession,” the report says. “It identifies the federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system — with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research.”

At least 500 children were confirmed to have been killed at Native boarding schools, but as more research is conducted, that number is expected to increase. There are estimates that tens of thousands of children died at the hands of the federal Indian boarding school system. The report also takes a closer look at the daily conditions of the schools. “Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented,” the report says.

At the hearing, a number of Native boarding school survivors spoke or submitted written testimonies about how those traumatic experiences shaped the rest of their lives. LaBelle, who was sent to two different boarding schools in Alaska from 1955 to 1965, said the physical and psychological damage he endured have created lifelong health issues. “I have experienced many adverse health effects for my entire life because of poor nutrition and lack of proper healthcare at boarding schools. I have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, type II diabetes, thyroid illness, shingles, and cataracts. It took many years of learning and therapy to undo the things at boarding school which I thought were normal,” he said.

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