Written By: Lisa R. Shellenberger of Smith, Shelton & Ragona
“I was beaten with a leather strap from my ankles up to my back [for attempting to run away]. I can remember how the ex-sergeant, [turned priest,] would still wear his army boots under his robe . . . he almost beat me to death.” “A few years later . . . my little sister was raped.”
These heavy words came from Tim Giago, an American Indian boarding school survivor, at the Boarding School Healing Symposium held at the University of Colorado Law School (CU Law) on May 14 – 15. Giago spoke with great openness on the truly life changing education he endured during his ten years at a Catholic Indian mission boarding school in South Dakota in the 1940s. Rosemarry Gibbons, another member of the Symposium, shared her award-winning film, A Century of Genocide. The film is a short, yet powerful documentary on how Indian Residential Schools became a haven for institutionalized sexual abuse. Saa Hiil Thut [Gerry Oleman], narrator of A Century of Genocide, also appeared and offered personal accounts on the destruction boarding school had on his spirit, his life, and his family.
While finding the courage to talk about what happened in schools established by our Nation’s churches and government is almost insurmountably difficult, individuals involved in the Symposium are doing even more than just talking about it – they’re doing something about it. The Boarding School Healing Symposium Planning Committee established a mission devoted to solving the problems the boarding schools created, which include: suicide, alcoholism, sexual abuse, drug addiction, violence, parenting issues, loss of culture, extinction of native languages, and a multi-generational gap in custom and way of life.
The Boarding School Healing Symposium, coordinated by CU Law’s American Indian Law Clinic Director, Jill E. Tompkins, brought together approximately 36 individuals from many different states and countries that have been working with, writing about, or working toward the resolution of issues arising from the Boarding School Policy, a federal policy themed “Kill the Indian, save the man.” This group was comprised of lawyers, educators, social workers, boarding school survivors, native elders, film makers, and many other advocates.
The American Indian Boarding School problem was not openly discussed, whether by the government, the churches, the Indian communities affected, or the survivors themselves, until about ten years ago. First from the federal government to speak on the issue was Kevin Gover, then of the Department of the Interior. In 2000, he issued a statement that said, “Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.” This acknowledgement was followed nearly ten years later by President Obama signing into law the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, which included in footnote titled Section 8113, otherwise known as an “apology to Native Peoples of the United States.” The footnote briefly acknowledged, “[T]he Federal Government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples and endeavored to assimilate them by . . . the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden.” Unsurprisingly, the passage of the footnote apology went largely unnoticed; it is said even the White House is unsure of what to do with Section 8113.
While some recent attention, indeed sparse, has been paid to the devastating issues created in Indian communities by boarding schools, the Boarding School Healing Symposium was one of the first gatherings dedicated to organizing a collaborative solution to resolve the problems created by American Indian boarding schools. The express purposes of the Symposium was (1) to have these individuals identify goals, and agree on a strategy to secure a meaningful apology to the Native American individuals, communities, Tribes, Pueblos, and Alaskan Villages victimized by the policies’ deliberate goal of cultural genocide—wiping out the cultures, (2) to secure adequate resources to support healing in those communities impacted by the policy, (3) to provide mechanisms to seek redress for individuals and/or communities who need or want that, (4) to provide mutual support to the efforts of those working toward these and coordinate goals, and (5) to identify the needed social/psychological, health, cultural, legislative, legal, educational, media, and funding necessary to carry such a strategy forward.
As stated by James Anaya, the United Nationals Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “Be informed, be involved, be inspired.” Applaud those that are a part of the Boarding School Healing Symposium Planning Committee; simply mention it in a conversation. Know that you, too, can help rebuild the cultures, languages, and senses of community that were literally beaten out of Indian children, and as a result, out of Indian communities. Many are uneducated on the history of Indian boarding schools, through no fault of their own, and some would certainly be eager to learn. So help educate the millions of Americans that are unaware of the genocide that occurred by their churches, by their government, and on their soil. When a century’s worth of Indian children are stolen, malnourished, beaten, killed, and raped, the effects continue to ripple through time until someone rises against the tide.
Help break the silence. Be informed, be involved, be inspired.