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Senate committee hears testimony in support of boarding school commission

The genocidal history of federal boarding school policies and the generational impact on Native American communities were presented to the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the committee are committed to moving a bill to the full Senate floor that would establish a truth and healing commission on the US boarding school policies that continue to affect Indigenous children.

Much of the presentation was a review of the Interior Department’s first report that details how the schools were used to destroy Indigenous culture by taking children from their homes, forcing them into intensive labor under military-guided instruction, and abusing students who would not submit or continued to speak traditional languages.

Interior Department report details the brutality of federal Indian boarding schools

The Interior Department investigated 408 schools that operated in 36 states between 1819 and 1969.

The report was presented in May after a yearlong investigation. A second report will be released that has more details about students and their tribal background.

Wednesday’s hearing is another step for US leaders to come to terms with the failures and abuse created by their government under these policies, senators said.

The committee heard from Interior Secretary Deb Haand and other Indigenous leaders, including a group of students from the Santa Fe Indian School who submitted a letter asking for a formal apology by the US government.

“The Albuquerque Indian School — built on the soil of our homelands — intentionally stripped our grandmas and grandpas of their traditional language and culture,” the letter states.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.), a member of the committee, introduced and read portions of the letter Wednesday. The letter was signed by four students in attendance that are taking part in the SFIS Summer Policy Academy: Taryn Aguilar (San Ildefonso/Diné), Briana Toya (Jemez), Amber Garcia (San Felipe/Diné) and Leah Mountain (San Ildefonso) .

The students asked for support around the “generational harms” caused by boarding school policies. “Many generations of Native families are deeply affected, for example, by poverty, substance abuse, and culture and language loss, thereby impeding the transfer of our tribal laws and cultural costumes from one generation to the next.”

The students would go on to listen to how this personally affected Secretary Haaland (Laguna). She testified about how her traditional language was not taught to her by her mother due in part to the fear of abuse she learned at a boarding school.

“My mother, she had her hands hit with a piece of rubber hose every time she spoke Keres. It’s one of the reasons why she didn’t want to teach us Keres, our Native language, because she was worried and scared,” Haaland tested before the committee. “And so you can see how easily it would be to have generations of non-Native speakers because their parents are worried about the future of their children.”

Haaland shared more information about the listening tour to tribal nations impacted by the boarding school era. She said the first stop will be in Oklahoma and will be closed to the media,offering privacy for anyone who wishes to share their story.

Mental health options are also in the works. Haaland said the Interior is coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services to offer resources to local medical providers at the listening tour locations.

Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai’i) said he is confident that the truth and reconciliation bill will pass his committee and also told Haaland to submit any extra budget requests to help fund mental health services for communities unraveling this traumatic past.

A major element of the proposed legislation is that it would give the Interior Department subpoena powers to access records kept by non-government organizations, such as churches. The Interior’s report shows that about half of the federal Indian boarding schools received money from religious organizations. A number of schools run by churches also took federal money to operate schools.

Indian Affairs assistant secretary Bryan Newland said the subpoena powers would give the investigation a more complete review of the era.

“It will allow us to do a closer look at each school that we have on our list, and do a better job of understanding where these cemeteries and burial sites are located,” he said, “and then also begin the work of trying to put together a plan to work with Indian Country to protect those sites.”

Recognition and apologies for past harms is just one reason why leaders want this investigation to grow.

Sandra White Hawk is the president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. She said her organization can model support services for people looking toward the federal government for mental health resources and cultural healing.

White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota Nation from the Rosebud Reservation) said the collective experience is helpful when sharing these pasts.

“One of the main benefits to compiling this information is that Native Americans who were impacted by the schools get more educated about the facts,” she said, “and learn that they are not alone in this experience.”

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