The harms of federal Native American boarding schools did not stop when those who survived eventually left them, panelists said during a virtual forum Friday afternoon.
Sept. 30, Orange Shirt Day, is a day of remembrance designated to honor children who never returned home, as well as those who live with lasting trauma from federal boarding schools. University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University educators discussed the lasting effects during a Zoom panel on Friday.
Jimmy Beason II, who is from the Osage Nation and an Eagle Clan member, is a professor at Haskell’s Indigenous Studies Department.
He said a prime example of the intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools was apparent in his own self-introduction during the panel. listen “Really, that’s all I could do was an introduction. I am not fluent in my language, and a lot of Native people these days are not fluent, unfortunately.”
Beason said there are a lot of fluent speakers, and a lot of tribes are creating cultural revitalization programs to bring back songs, language, values and traditional culture.
None of those things were welcome or even tolerated in boarding schools.
Haskell Institute, which is now Haskell Indian Nations University, was one of them at its founding. The boarding school had expanded into a high school by the 1920s — a point in time when nearly 83% of all Native American children were attending boarding schools — and evolved to a junior college in 1970 before becoming Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993.
“These were places of identity theft, and they were focused on the young,” said Eric Anderson, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Haskell faculty member. Children had their traditional clothing taken away and their hair cut.
“They received new names. They were punished for speaking their languages, or practicing their religions,” Anderson said. “They were places of isolation, of loneliness, of confusion, of very harsh living conditions.”
The intergenerational trauma rooted in residential schools can be seen in dysfunction within some communities, Beason said. Children were taken from their families and from places of love and compassion, and put in harsh, concrete environments. Many were physically, emotionally, verbally and sexually abused.
“And when they got home — if they made it home, if they didn’t die on the grounds — they got home and were dealing with a lot of trauma,” Beason said.
Some people would self-medicate; some couldn’t fit in with their communities and didn’t feel part of anything. But they weren’t taught how to be parents in those schools, Beason said — so for many people, when they themselves had children, the abuse was all they knew. That abuse and lack of identity could compound with relocation and other policies meant to separate Native people from their communities.
“Within that whole spectrum is where you get that intergenerational trauma that’s been passed down from one parent to the next child,” Beason said. “And then when they become parents, they’re just passing that down — unless somebody breaks that cycle, and finds it within themselves to heal and to essentially decolonize their mentality and try to create a relationship with their original teachings.”
Melissa “Missy” Holder, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and an assistant professor in the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, introduced the panelists and facilitated questions. Panelists noted that they would only be able to touch on the very surface of this complex history during the hourlong panel.
Holder asked Anderson to explain how these schools differed from military boarding schools. Anderson said there were actually some similarities — structures were very rigid, and students were often organized into cadet battalion formation, schedules were ordered, and students did drills out on the quad.
“The difference would be that, by and large at least, military academies lacked the coercive elements that the boarding schools for Native youth did,” Anderson said. “Not to say that every single student in every single case was coerced, but we know stories of children being stolen, or of parents being deceived, or of parents being coerced through different means, like having rations withheld until they sent their children to the schools.
“The other major difference is most military schools do not have cemeteries,” Anderson continued. “They do not have the record of disease and deaths that the Indian schools did, and they were not geared towards ethnocide. … The Native boarding schools left a lot of wounds and a lot of lasting legacies that we’re still wrestling with today.”
A member of the audience asked how non-Native people can help their Native peers. Beason said cultural competency is important: non-Native people should research and educate themselves on the history, try to “get to a place where they at least have some idea what’s happening,” and talk with Native community members.
Holder echoed the point about educating oneself, “but also having that humility that comes along with that and continuing to grow and learn. Asking when appropriate; also not thinking because you’ve read something, that you’re the expert on it.”
Anderson added that it’s very important to listen to Native people.
“So much of the history of Native people has been told by outsiders, and so just reading things in a book won’t necessarily imbue you with the knowledge that maybe it’s most important to have,” Anderson said.
The panel was sponsored by KU Native American Initiatives and Toni Johnson Center for Racial and Social Justice.
Here are two upcoming events of interest:
• What You Should Know about the Indian Child Welfare Act, set for noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6. Learn more about this virtual event at this link. Read our recent article on some adoptees’ experiences at this link.
• Indian Boarding Schools Legacies: Healing in Our Communities, 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13 in person at Haskell Indian Nations University. Learn more at this link.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.