A tribal leader told about 150 people in attendance at a National Day of Remembrance service Saturday that Indian Country can move forward by seeking truth and reconciliation.
Sept. 30, also known as Orange Shirt Day, is a day designated to honor children who never returned home as well as people who live with lasting trauma from Native American boarding schools.
Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes spoke during a special service at the Central United Methodist Church in Lawrence, where multiple speakers discussed the importance of language and struggle of language loss inflicted by boarding schools.
Barnes said the Shawnee language is important to bring children into the religion. At special moments in life and at the end of life, that language is needed, he said.
Barnes said he and his brother visited Elders who had been told not to speak the language because it will only bring you pain and suffering. But he said some Shawnee folks were proud and hardheaded and did it anyway.
“And that’s how we survived for thousands of years practicing an ancient religion, is through that hardheadedness,” Barnes said.
That stubbornness set them on a course to encounter their own boarding schools in Shawnee Mission, Barnes said. But he said the stories they know are different from the ones that are told within the walls of historic sites.
“We’ve been told at one of the sites that we have activism at, ‘Don’t talk about dead kids, because it hurts our fundraising,'” Barnes said.
Barnes said they started pursuing testimonies of boarding school survivors. They didn’t just lose their languages and their cultures — some kids had their entire identities reshaped and never learned how to be caring family members. They pushed people away and kept from getting too close to people because people will hurt them — even their own children.
“These kids that went to these places went in there as innocent children. They never got to learn how to be a father; they got to learn to be a superintendent,” he said. “They never learned how to be a mother or grandmother; they learned to be a matron.”
“… This is intergenerational trauma. This is what’s passed on from one family to the next,” Barnes said. “This is the legacy of boarding schools.”
Barnes said the events contributed to problems in Indian Country that are too big for any one individual to solve.
“We seek healing; we seek reconciliation; we seek truth,” Barnes said. “These are opportunities to build our own places, to build our own memorials to these events, to have these discussions.”
He said congressional partners, faith-based organizations, communities and advocates need to come together and work with Indian people for truth and reconciliation.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids was expected to speak, but she could not make it because the ongoing threat of a government shutdown kept her occupied in Washington, D.C.
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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.