Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland traveled to Rohnert Park, California on August 6, 2023, to host an event on “The Road to Healing”, a year-long tour across the country to provide Native survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system and their descendants an opportunity to share their experiences. At the event held at Graton Casino Event Center, I spoke regarding my experience at Stewart Indian Boarding School. The venue was well attended, with several generations of stories honoring grandparents, aunts, uncles, and community members that were in most cases kidnapped from their homes and shipped off to various Indian Boarding Schools throughout the United States.
Stewart Indian Boarding School was opened Dec. 17, 1890, and permanently closed in 1980. It is located outside Carson City, Nevada. The Interior Department actively financed more than 400 American Indian boarding schools in partnership with Christian church leadership throughout the United States. The primary focus was to completely assimilate native children from their traditional culture and remove them from their homelands. This meant forcibly forbidding their Tribal language, regalia, spirituality, or family ties to remain in place. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary. She created the “Road to Healing” across Indian country to hear firsthand the horrific and massive negative impacts of boarding schools. Secretary Haaland reflecting on children being forcibly removed from their families said, “Those are formidable years in a child’s life. It’s devastating. It’s important for every single American to know what happened.”
Speaking in public allowed other survivors to personally address their lived experiences or those of loved ones who upon returning were so quiet, protective, or emotionless. The trauma from extreme physical and emotional abuse caused many to behave so differently after returning to their homes. This included many survivors responding violently when seemingly minorly provoked. Survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress including hypervigilance which can cause them to lash out to those around them with severe repercussions. We were not taught to love, to forgive, to be compassionate or give assistance to others in physical or emotional turmoil.
The negative effects of Indian boarding schools did not end with their closures. Addictions and alcohol continue to plague Tribal communities. We have long memories and no respite from a government that sought to destroy our way of life. It almost worked. With no positive parenting role models, many individuals repeat the circle of violence and non-communicative behaviors; still unable to address the permanently damaged Tribal self-image, nonexistent self-esteem, and absent sense of self-worth. We were basically stripped of culture, traditions, human kindness, and social skills. Those that returned home no longer fit in, but we had nowhere else to go. We were made strangers to our own people. Deep cultural ties were severed and, in most cases, could not be rebuilt. This is an ongoing genocide, waged against children and Tribal communities.
I am a survivor, a prisoner of war. We demand help, but mainstream mental health professionals do not know of our frozen place in history. But we are not history, we are still standing, vibrant and must change public awareness, compensation and to be victorious in our hearts to lift others when possible. Always remember the biggest most hard-fought war was here on domestic soil against the First People of the First Nations.
In Stewart, we lived in a world of sexual abuse, physical torment, learning and surviving meant being pitted against one another to fight for the pleasure of staff. Always demanding a winner and a loser. Losers didn’t get to eat or bathe, did double duty as prescribed by matrons, security or teachers. I thought surviving physically to come home was the greatest feeling ever. Little did I realize a part of my heart and soul remains in the desert of Stewart. Many stories to be told but always remembering the children who never made it home. Lost forever, every day I pray for them, that their Spirit soars far away from their pain and back with their families. Never forget…