Healing from the trauma of Indian boarding schools

Healing from the trauma of Indian boarding schools

by Iris Graville and Judy Meyer

For years, Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation avoided wearing the color orange. It brought back memories of the cruel treatment she endured at a residential school in British Columbia, Canada. Now, every September 30, Webstad wears a bright orange shirt with the words “Every Child Matters” printed on the front. This day has been designated in Canada as “Orange Shirt Day” (www.orangeshirtday.org) to recognize “the damage done to the self-esteem and well-being of children by the residential school system”. In the United States, many people, including the NDN Collective (https://ndncollective.org), recognize September 30 as a National Day of Remembrance.

The Lopez Island Friends Meeting (Quakers) Indigenous Rights Action Committee heard about Indian boarding schools in the United States from a Samish tribesman and heard about Orange Shirt Day from Webstad’s YouTube video (https: //youtu.be/EuW4WbekhxY). Webstad arrived at a boarding school in 1973 at the age of six. She was excited to start school wearing a new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother, but school officials took her shirt away. In the video, she explains that she begged for her shirt back, but no one listened. This was the beginning of experiences that destroyed his self-esteem. “All I remember the most is crying, being alone and no one really caring about me or any of us kids. We would cry to sleep every night and no one would ever come to comfort us.

Webstad and thousands of other First Nations children lost more than a brightly colored shirt when they attended residential schools. They were separated from their families and their culture and not allowed to speak their language. And the history of boarding schools in the United States is equally appalling.

In May, the US Department of the Interior released a nationwide investigative report identifying more than 400 federally-run schools for Native American children, including 15 in Washington state.

These schools began to open in the late 1880s and continued to operate until the 1960s. Over 100,000 Native American and Alaska Native children were placed in the schools.

The report was the first step in the Federal Residential Schools Initiative launched by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland following revelations in 2021 of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada. According to the report, “American schools have been designed to forcibly remove children from their families and place them with educators who have suppressed the use of Indigenous language and all learning about Indigenous cultures and beliefs.”

Interior Secretary Haaland wrote of her own family’s experience in a June 11, 2021, opinion piece in The Washington Post:

“My maternal grandparents were taken from their family when they were only eight years old and were forced to live away from their parents, their culture and their community until they were thirteen. Many children like them suffered physical abuse for speaking their tribal languages ​​or practicing traditions that did not align with what the government saw as the American ideal,” Haaland wrote. “Many never returned home. We must learn this history.

An earlier response to this tragic history was the 2012 creation of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). The non-profit organization works to raise awareness and cultivate healing for the profound trauma suffered by Native American and Alaska Native individuals, families, communities and nations as a result of the 1869 Residential School Policy. Deborah Parker of the Tulalip Tribe is the CEO of NABS.

One of the US pieces of legislation that NABS tracks is the Indian Residential Schools Policy Truth and Healing Commission’s Truth and Healing Act, introduced on September 30, 2021 (HR 5444 and S.2907). The purpose of this law is to establish a truth and healing commission. Parker describes the law as long overdue. “Natives have endured nearly two centuries of boarding school policies,” she says. “The truth can wait no longer.”

Local tribal communities continue to experience intergenerational trauma resulting from Indian boarding school experiences. The Lopez Island Friends Meeting is aware that Quakers, along with Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, have been involved in running some schools in the United States. Local Quakers are working to do what they can to promote healing, and they urge people to ask their representatives in Congress to support the Truth and Healing Commission of the Indian Residential Schools Policy Act.

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