Elderly Native Americans who attended government-sponsored Indian boarding schools spoke about the abuse they suffered as children. They described being beaten and whipped and being sexually assaulted.
They hailed from various parts of the country and belonged to different tribes, but they all had the same experience of having gone to schools that were established with the intention of erasing Indigenous people’s traditional identity.
“I still feel that pain,” said 84-year-old Donald Neconie, a former U.S. Marine and Kiowa Tribe member who formerly attended the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, approximately 80 miles (129 kilometers) southwest of Oklahoma City. “I will never forgive this school for what they did to me. “It may be good now. But it wasn’t back then.”
Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history and a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, listened attentively as the elders talked. It was the first stop on a year-long national tour to hear from Native Americans who were sent to the government-backed boarding schools about their awful experiences at the Riverside Indian School, which is still in operation today, but with a significantly different purpose.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know,” Haaland said at the start of the event, which attracted Native Americans from throughout the region. “Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry the trauma in our hearts. “My ancestors endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead. This is the first time in history that a cabinet secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma.”
There were more than 400 of these institutions, which aimed to integrate Native students into white society between the late 18th century and the late 1960s, discovered by Haaland’s organization in recent years.
While most of these schools have long since closed their doors and no longer serve the purpose of erasing students’ ethnic identities, a few do continue to serve as educational institutions, but with radically different goals that honor the cultural heritage of their Native students. One of these is Riverside, which dates back to the earliest days of the city.
Originally founded in 1871, Riverside now educates children in grades four through twelve, providing a wide range of academic and extracurricular opportunities, including classes in beadwork, shawl-making, and an introduction to the art, cuisine, and activities of the indigenous people of the area. One of the nation’s oldest and largest Native American-owned and -operated schools, it serves roughly 800 students from more than 75 different tribes.
In accordance with the Bureau of Indian Education’s website, it is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools around the nation that aims to deliver education that is linked with a tribe’s objectives for cultural and economic well-being.
A more sordid chapter of Riverside’s history is the mistreatment of hundreds of Native American pupils who were compelled to attend the school.
Neconie, who is still in Anadarko, recalls being beaten for crying or speaking his native Kiowa language when he was a student at Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Neconie still resides in Anadarko. “Every time I tried to talk Kiowa, they put lye in my mouth,” he said. “It was 12 years of hell.”
There was a time when Brought Plenty, a Standing Rock Sioux who now resides in Dallas, was forced to cut her hair and was ordered not to speak her own language at Indian boarding schools in South Dakota. She described being made to beat other girls with wet towels and being punished if she refused. “What they did to us makes you feel so inferior,” she said. “You never get past this. You never forget it.”
When it comes to Native American boarding schools, the federal government has hitherto been reluctant to look at its own involvement. As a result, government officials who have firsthand knowledge of the pain caused have taken significant roles.
It’s estimated that at least 500 students have perished at these institutions, but the true figure might be in the hundreds or perhaps tens of thousands.
The Interior Department’s study contains a list of boarding schools in what were states or territories between 1819 and 1969 that included a housing component and received federal financing.
First, Oklahoma had 76, followed by Arizona (47), and New Mexico (43) Native American communities are still present in all three states.
It may be difficult for former pupils to trust a government that has a history of killing and assimilating people under the cover of education. Some, on the other hand, like the chance to tell their story in public for the first time.