By Levi Rickert
Opinion. Thirty years ago, I attended a family reception. As more family members gathered for dinner, I casually asked two of my mother’s cousins why we didn’t know much about our family history. It seemed to me that our elders should have passed it on so that I could pass it on to my children and grandchildren.
I quickly realized that I had crossed a border within our family.
“Because it wasn’t nice,” an elderly cousin told me. For several awkward minutes, no one said a word. We then moved on to an unrelated topic.
I made a mental note never to ask him about our history again. To be clear, my family was loving; we just didn’t talk about the nasty things that happened to our family members.
This incident came back to me this weekend as I was trying to process what I heard on Saturday in Anadarko, Okla. of several elders who recounted their painful experiences while attending residential schools.
These elders testified publicly before U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) during the first stop on the path of healing Visit to the Riverside Indian Residential School in Anadarko.
The difference between the reluctance of my mother’s cousins and that of the elders on Saturday was stark. Elders, survivors or descendants of residential schools, have been open about the unpleasant experiences they and their loved ones have had there.
In fact, unpleasant is a nice word for what was presented Saturday by Native American elders. A more appropriate term would be awful.
Elders provided graphic and painful examples of physical, emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by residential school staff. One woman said she was treated with lindane, an insecticide, to kill any lice she may have had when she arrived. Several talked about getting their hair cut. A woman said that the students felt inferior and would never achieve anything.
A man said he was sodomized by staff. Although it has been decades since he experienced this sex crime, he is still traumatized.
The federal government’s Indian boarding school policy was established to assimilate Native American children into American society. The mantra of this dark chapter in American history was “kill the Indian, save the man”. Saturday’s testimonies suggest that residential school staff set out to deliberately destroy not only the “Indian” within them, but also the very human spirit.
On Saturday, an elderly woman said she had only been able to talk about her boarding school experiences for the past two years. She also said that she had received treatment in many healing programs for decades and was still taking counseling twice a week.
Healing has been a lifelong journey for her.
Native Americans are often told to “get over it” or “get up by their boots”. These warnings may help motivate lazy middle-class individuals, but they do little to help Native Americans who have been stripped of their culture, language, and self-esteem.
The experiences have been so horrific that these flippant warnings do even more damage. They do not heal the spirit of Native Americans who have suffered greatly and live with deep emotional scars often passed down from generation to generation.
Healing is indeed a lifelong journey. And, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
For this reason, it is commendable that the Department of the Interior, under the Native American leadership of Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary Newland, has embarked on the Road to Healing tour which will continue through 2023.
Saturday’s testimonies from former Native Americans were a step in acknowledging this horrific past.
On Saturday, Secretary Haaland said, “This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Indigenous communities that federal Indian boarding schools have set out to sever. These steps have the potential to alter the course of our future.
In the 1990s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up after the end of the cruel apartheid regime in South Africa, received more than 22,000 victim statements concerning human rights violations, torture, murder and severe ill-treatment at the hands of the apartheid state.
Its aim was to uncover the truth about the apartheid regime and to enable recognition, public mourning, forgiveness and healing. Many said the commission was a failure because it didn’t go far enough. He did not go into repairs.
Today, the Native American elders of our generation, by speaking of the past, allow the discovery of truths. It is painful but necessary to expose what happened so that our people and future generations can begin to heal. It is time to break through the intergenerational trauma caused by Indian boarding schools.
I sincerely hope that the path of healing Tour, by exposing these awful truths, will alter the course of Native American history. I also sincerely hope that this tour is just the beginning. May these testimonies, at the very least, be treated with holiness and respect and that the federal government, the church and all who are complicit in the extermination of the original inhabitants of this land, will listen and acknowledge the damage that has been done .
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