Road to Healing Tour Highlights the Sufferings of Native American Residential School Survivors

“I will never, ever forgive this school for what they did to me. I still feel this pain.”

Those were the words of Donald Neconie, 84, a former US Marine and member of the Kiowa tribe, as he spoke at the first event of the ‘Road to Healing’ tour which kicked off Saturday at the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko. , Oklohoma.

Mr. Neconie and other Native American tribal elders – all former students of the government-backed “Indian” boarding school – testified to the hardships they endured at Riverside, including beatings, whippings, sexual assaults, humiliations and painful nicknames.

They came from different states and different tribes, but they shared the common experience of having attended a school designed to strip indigenous peoples of their cultural identity.

As the elders spoke, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland – herself a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history – listened quietly.

“I am here to listen. I will listen with you, I will cry with you, I will believe you and I will feel your pain,” Ms Haaland said.

The “Road to Healing” tour will give survivors of Native American boarding schools an opportunity to speak out about the widespread abuses committed at these institutions.(PA: Sue Ogrocki)

Riverside was Ms. Haaland’s first stop on the nationwide tour that will give First Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiian survivors of federal Indian residential school policies a platform to share their painful experiences.

Mr. Neconie, who still lives in Anadarko, remembers being beaten if he cried or spoke his native Kiowa language while attending Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“Every time I tried to talk to Kiowa, they put lye in my mouth,” he said.

“It was 12 years of hell.”

Ingestion of lye, a metal hydroxide used to clean and harden foods, causes “rapid burning of the mouth, tongue, and pharynx,” according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

A cabinet secretary with a “shared trauma”

US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks from a podium.
Ms. Haaland will meet with survivors and their descendants across the United States to hear their stories.(PA: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ms. Haaland’s agency recently released a report identifying more than 400 schools that were centers of forced assimilation from the early 1800s through the 1970s, with the stated aim of eliminating Native American culture.

The report said the students, often separated from their families at the age of four or five, endured “endemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse”.

More than 500 children have died at these schools, but that number is expected to rise into the tens of thousands as more research is conducted.

Schools pursued a policy of “Christianization,” removing native cultural signifiers by cutting children’s hair, making them wear American-style uniforms, forbidding them to speak their native languages, and replacing their tribal names with English names.

“Federal Indian residential school policies have affected every Native American I know,” Ms. Haaland said at the start of the event, which drew Native Americans from across the region.

“My ancestors endured the horrors of residential school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now head.

“This is the first time in history that a cabinet secretary has come to the table with this shared trauma.”

Young boys eat in the dining hall of a Native American boarding school.
Young boys eating in a dining hall of a Native American boarding school at an unknown location.(Wikipedia: Minnesota Historical Society)

The Dark History of Riverside

The Riverside Indian School, which opened in 1871, still operates today, but with a very different mission.

These days, Riverside offers specialized academic programs as well as courses in cultural subjects such as beadwork, shawl making, and an introduction to tribal art, foods, and games.

A woman enters the gymnasium at Riverside Indian School.
Today, Riverside School’s administration, staff, and teachers are mostly Native American.(PA: Sue Ogrocki)

Currently operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, it has nearly 800 students from more than 75 tribes across the country, and the school’s administration, staff, and faculty are primarily Native American.

But Riverside also has a dark history of abusing the thousands of Native American students who were forced from their homes to attend.

An elderly lady wearing glasses and a pearl necklace speaks as she sits in a wheelchair.
Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, said the older Kiowa women who served as stay-at-home moms in the dorms treated her kindly.(PA: Sue Ogrocki)

Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, a Kiowa who attended Riverside in the 1940s, spoke about when she says three young boys ran away from home and were caught in a snowstorm.

She said all three froze to death.

“I think we need a memorial for these boys,” she said.

But Ms WhiteHorse said she had fond memories.

She remembers learning to jitterbug in the school gymnasium and learning to speak English for the first time.

She also recalled the older Kiowa women who served as stay-at-home moms in the dorms who let her speak her native language and treated her kindly.

“I was helped,” WhiteHorse said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Brought Plenty, a Sioux from Standing Rock who lives in Dallas, didn’t share such happy memories of her childhood at Indian boarding schools in South Dakota.

She remembers being forced to whip other girls with wet towels and being punished when she didn’t.

“You never get past that. You never forget that.”

Six students posed in a room at a Native American boarding school.
Children were often separated from their families at the age of four or five and suffered “endemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse”.(Wikipedia: Minnesota Historical Society)

The brutality of “laundering”

Under a similar policy in Australia, Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in non-Aboriginal families or institutions between approximately 1905 and 1967.

They are known today as the Stolen Generation.

Conditions at former Indian residential schools drew worldwide attention last year when tribal leaders in Canada announced the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Children’s Residential School, as these institutions are known in Canada.

Unlike the United States, Canada conducted a full investigation of its schools through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The US government has never acknowledged the number of children who attended these schools or the number of children who died or disappeared from them.

The US Department of the Interior’s landmark investigation could change that as it sheds light on a raw topic for Native Americans that has until recently received little national attention.

The Department of the Interior report includes a list of boarding schools in states or territories that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and received federal government support.

Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona, which had 47, and New Mexico, which had 43. All three states still have large Native American populations.

Lawrence SpottedBird, the newly elected chairman of the Kiowa tribe, said he was a military veteran and felt as American as anyone. But he said it was high time the country stopped ‘whitewashing the brutal history’ of the boarding school system.

“America prides itself on being a defender of democracy and human rights around the world, but was itself one of the worst human rights violators as far as Native Americans were concerned”, did he declare.

Children at school.
More than 500 children have died at these schools, but that number is expected to rise into the tens of thousands as more research is conducted.(Provided: Historical Museum of Genoa and Genoa US Indian School Foundation)

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