American Indian Boarding Schools: Resolving the Issues They Left Behind

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.

Native Healing Program Awarded Best of Aberdeen Area Indian Health Programs

Written By:  Molly Barnett, Attorney at Smith, Shelton & Ragona


Rapid City, SD: From tragedy to success– the Native Healing Program (NHP) in Rapid City recently rebuilt its alcohol and drug treatment center out of the ashes, literally. And now the program is being recognized as Program of the Year among all 30 alcohol and drug treatment programs within the Aberdeen Area of the Indian Health Service.  This is no small feat, especially given the rapid turnaround the program has had to make in order to be recognized with such an honor.

The program is operated by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in cooperation with and on behalf of members of the Oglala, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud Sioux Tribes.  A year ago, in April of 2010, an electrical fire destroyed NHP’s outdated facility.  Although thankfully no one was seriously hurt in the fire, NHP was forced to temporarily cease its treatment and recovery services. Determined to resume services, and practicing its own teachings of healing in the midst of extreme adversity, NHP began the process of rebuilding.

There were, of course, some setbacks.  A compliance issue with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which arose during previous management at the Program, required the Program to revise its confidentiality policies. With the help of its attorneys, Smith, Shelton and Ragona, LLC of Westminster, Colorado, the revised policies will now ensure future confidentiality of client records and avoid fines and fees associated with past deficiencies. Additionally, the Program and its attorneys revised NHP’s entire personnel policies and procedures, ensuring a compliant, healthy work environment.

Overcoming those obstacles, NHP next focused on negotiating with the Indian Health Services to secure funding for a new facility. Every year, the Indian Health Services enters into an Indian Self Determination Contract (P.L. 93-638) with tribally-run Indian health programs. Such contracts are intended to provide funding for services that IHS would ordinarily provide, but have instead delegated to tribal entities who know their people, in Lakota their “Oyate” , best. Such is the case with NHP, which uses traditional Lakota teachings to treat alcohol and drug abuse. NHP’s negotiations with IHS were successful, and under a revised 638 contract, NHP received funding for a new, up-to-date modular facility.

In the beginning of 2011, NHP moved into its new facility and started out-patient treatments again.  With the vision of its Program Director, Gloria One Feather, and the dedication of its counseling team, the Program is off to a great start. There were 30 programs competing for the award, and, out of all programs, Native Healing Program showed the most improvement over the past year.  Janelle Janis, counselor from Native Healing Program was also recognized with the Fire Stomper award for her ability as Peace Keeper and mediator.

The award was presented to NHP on May 04, 2011 during the awards luncheon at the Aberdeen Area Behavioral Health Conference, Mystic Lake (Prior Lake) MN. Lelewis Gipp , Director of the Aberdeen Area Alcohol Program  provided,  “the Native Healing Program was selected from a list of nominees for the award for Program of the Year.  The Native Healing Program showed resiliency following adversity which included the lost facility.  Their display of teamwork is commendable which led to the development of program policies and procedures, updated curriculum and the NHP website among other activities and projects.”

Gloria One Feather, Director of NHP said, “receiving the award comes one year after the fire, which was a year filled with hard work for the NHP staff. The Native Healing Program worked as a team and demonstrated their abilities, skills and most of all their perseverance. The acknowledgement came at a good time and is truly is boost for staff morale. Our concentration is focused on quality service delivery to our community while planning for the future of NHP. Wopila for the support of OST, Sioux San and all the Aberdeen Area Alcohol Programs.”

If you are interested in learning more about Native Healing Program or its treatment services, please visit NHP online at www.nativehealingprogram.org .   The Program is run by the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Health and Human Services Committee. The Program provides alcohol and substance abuse treatment to the Rapid City (Mni Luzahan Otunwahe) Native American Community and other affiliated tribes in the region.