Indigenous advocates: Feds need to expand Indian boarding school initiative
A few years ago, Michael Galban, the curator at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, did some digging into records and newspaper archives from the turn of the last century.
He wanted to learn more about the Stewart Indian School in Nevada — the Indian boarding school where his grandmother went.
“I just wanted more of the story because it's something that I didn't have an opportunity to hear directly from her because she had passed away before I was even born,” he said.
On Wednesday, a federal investigation into Indian boarding schools revealed damning details of U.S. policies to eradicate Indigenous cultures.
According to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, the U.S. directly targeted Native American children for cultural assimilation, and the schools were central to a broader plan to remove Indigenous people from their land.
To this end, systematic, militarized and “identity-alteration” methods were applied in the school system.
Galban’s grandmother, Evelyn Evans Galban, was one of countless children subjected to this.
“(In the newspapers), I was looking to see if she was mentioned as one of the runaways, but she wasn’t mentioned ... but there were many, many other children who were.” Galban said. “And then I discovered lots of suicides and attempted suicides that were being reported of the students of that boarding school.”
The history of these schools spans 150 years. And it’s part of every Indigenous family’s story across the country. More than 400 of these institutions existed across the country, including at least three in New York state.
“This is among the original sins of this country, and the fact that the truth is finally coming to light is deeply emotional, and it's important,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, a Pawnee Nation citizen and CEO of the Native American social justice organization IllumiNATIVE. “This was not just a couple bad apples in schools. This was a policy, a systematic policy.”
Students were barred from speaking their Native language. Rules were enforced through corporal punishment, solitary confinement, and withholding food. Older students were sometimes made to punish younger children. Abuse in all forms was rampant.
The federal investigative report also shows that these schools have had long-lasting impacts, even on health outcomes for former students. According to the National Institutes of Health, adults who had attended the boarding schools as children were more than three times more likely to have cancer, for instance.
Echo Hawk’s grandfather, Ernest Echo Hawk, was a survivor of the Pawnee Boarding School in Oklahoma. She said he knew the Pawnee language ... until he didn’t.
Toward the end of his life, he wrote down some Pawnee words he still remembered, words written onto a slip of yellow paper that he’d given to her. She still holds on to it.
“It just seemed like, in the last decade or so of his life, it was just like he was trying to get things back that were taken from him,” she said.
But not every student survived.
Through this investigation, about 50 burial sites have been found so far. More than 500 deaths have been accounted for. But the Department of the Interior expects the actual death toll could be in the tens of thousands.
“The challenge to the rest of America is: When you went to elementary school, or middle school or high school, did you have a cemetery for the children that died at that school?” said Dante Desiderio, a citizen of the Sappony Nation and CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.
“We need those children returned home to their communities and we also need to recognize this experience. Our fellow classmates died in the schools and were buried out back.”
Desiderio said this has to be the start of a broader initiative across government agencies to remedy the countless damages caused.
“It's the Department of Treasury in how the capital flows or, in our case, does not flow into Indian communities,” he said. “It's the language revitalization programs with Department of Education. It's the Health and Human Services getting funded for being able to jump in and really help some of the survivors.”
Desiderio wants people to recognize that this is not in the past. Across all of Indian Country, survivors and their descendants continue to suffer the consequences of a policy that was created to annihilate their way of being.
“We don't want to leave the people who've gone through this vulnerable and just have the federal government move on. We can't do that,” he said.
Congress has approved another $7 million for the investigation to continue. Galban said that amount needs to be in the billions to do it justice.
“As painful as this process is for us, I really do hope it brings a certain amount of healing in the sharing amongst our people and the descendants of the survivors and those who did not survive the boarding school system,” Galban said.