Congressional proposal would expand inquiry into residential schools

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A proposal to create an official commission to investigate the Native American boarding school era received its first congressional hearing on Thursday, a day after a federal report confirmed the US government supported 408 boarding schools designed to eradicate indigenous cultures.

The emotional hearing before a House subcommittee heard testimony from three residential school survivors, as well as other Indigenous leaders whose loved ones were sent to the schools.

“I’ve waited 67 years to tell this story,” said James LaBelle, who is Inupiaq. “Although I received an education, or a white man’s education, in the process I lost my own language, my own culture, my traditions.”

The Interior Department said in a first-of-its-kind report released Wednesday that thousands or tens of thousands of Indigenous children may have died in schools, which federal officials have described as a key part of the government’s campaign. government to gain access to tribal lands.

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The report draws a direct link between the trauma inflicted on children forced to attend schools and the negative health and economic outcomes that many tribal nations face today. It also included the first complete list of 408 federally funded boarding schools. Some operated until 1969. Seventy-six were in Oklahoma.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, said the federal report begins a broader reckoning process in which Congress should play a role. He described the hearing as setting a precedent and the proposed commission as crucial. The committee would further investigate the damage caused by the schools and recommend ways to help Indigenous communities recover.

“This search for truth is not about assessing punishment, he said. “It’s about acknowledging that this chapter in our history is something we can’t hide from.”

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The proposal has yet to garner broad support from Republicans, although two Oklahoma congressmen, Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, are among six who have signed on as co-sponsors.

But the potential for a partisan dividing line emerged over the commission’s proposed authority to subpoena private organizations such as churches, which operated many schools. “Why assume it will be an adversarial process?” asked Rep. Jay Olbernolte, R-California, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.

Grijalva said the subpoena power was necessary because the panel would be tasked with investigating a long-standing public policy that has impacted tribal communities for generations. Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819 to pay religious organizations to operate schools aimed at “civilizing” Native children.

“It shouldn’t be a dark secret,” Grijalva said.

Native American leaders lobbied for years for a formal way to collect documents from all boarding school operators. If approved by Congress, the Truth and Healing Commission would also set up a hotline to collect testimony from as many former students as possible. The commission would release a report within five years, outlining what it found and outlining recommendations to prevent the trauma from being passed on to future generations.

It would help Indigenous communities find answers that would otherwise be unknowable and provide some closure, Oklahoma Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes told lawmakers.

“We can’t go back and change the past, but we can and must hold ourselves accountable for doing the right thing today,” Barnes said. “Stories of human suffering in these institutions can no longer be hidden or ignored.”

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Three former boarding school students testified that they had had their hair cut upon arrival, that they had been punished for speaking their native language, and that they had been separated from their families for most of the year. All are now in their 60s.

Matthew War Bonnet, who is of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, testified that the priests who ran St. Francis Indian School often beat him and other students with willow sticks and leather thongs, and a times a cattle prod. He recalled that he was once separated from other students for 10 days and only given bread and water as punishment. He said he found strength singing to himself a Lakota song taught by his father, who also spent years at boarding school.

Ramona Charette Klein said she will never forget the moment she was first sent to Fort Totten Indian School, where she was abused and belittled by her teachers.

“I remember seeing my mother crying as she stood up and looked at six of her eight children placed in a large green bus,” said Klein, who is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota. .

LaBelle said the abuse at her Alaskan boarding school began almost as soon as she arrived and became known as Number instead of her name. Sexual abuse was common, he said. He “has witnessed so many atrocities that it’s almost become normal,” he said.

Today, LaBelle is part of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which helps organize support to urge Congress to establish the Truth and Healing Commission. A similar panel in Canada found mass burial sites for Indigenous children on school grounds.

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Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, is the lead sponsor of the House bill. She is from the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Residential schools have impacted all Indigenous people, both past and present, she said at Thursday’s hearing.

“We should be able to find within ourselves the ability to fully investigate what happened to our loved ones,” she said.

Deborah Parker, who heads the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said giving the board the power to issue subpoenas would be “absolutely necessary” to ensure access to records. It took many generations to get to this point of public accountability, she said.

“We are here to remind you to remember these children, to speak the truth, to subpoena other bearers of this knowledge, and to ensure that we get the truth that our families deserve,” Parker said. , which belongs to the Tulalip Tribes in Washington.

Molly Young covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network’s Sunbelt region. Reach her at [email protected] or 405-347-3534.

Submit a testimonial

Residential school survivors can submit their own testimony to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples through May 26 by emailing [email protected]

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