Congress Explores Truth Commission for US Indian Boarding Schools


WASHINGTON — Survivors of a U.S. policy that forced Indigenous children to attend boarding schools where they were abused or disappeared told members of a U.S. House Natural Resources panel at a hearing on Thursday the need for Congress to establish a truth commission dedicated to uncovering the trauma experienced by Indigenous children in schools.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) sponsored the bill, HR 5444that would establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Residential School Policies.

Thousands of Native children were forcibly removed from their homes to attend American boarding schools in an effort to assimilate. Many children did not return home and their families were never informed of what had happened to them.

Three boarding school survivors testified before the panel. James LaBelle, a member of the Port Graham Native Village in Alaska, said that while at residential school he was stripped of his name and given a number to replace his name, which in his Inupiaq language is Aqpayuq or ” Fast runner.”

Matthew War Bonnet, of the Sicangu Lakota people in Washington state, said he was only 6 years old when he was taken to Saint Francis boarding school in South Dakota in 1952. He said his experience had been painful and traumatic.

War Bonnet said he was frequently beaten, starved and isolated for days as punishment. When he returned home for the summers, he found it difficult to speak to his parents in their Lakota language because he would be beaten by the priests if he spoke anything other than English.

He added that not only the government must assume its responsibilities, but also the churches. Religious organizations played a large role in the federal residential schools, about 50%.

“The government gave the churches our land to Christianize us, modernize us and civilize us, but the churches mistreated us,” he said. “The kids who went to those schools were in good spirits, and then the church did things to them and turned them into who they were.”

Dr. Ramona Klein, an enrolled member of the Turtle Band of Chippewa based in Belcourt, North Dakota, said her experience at boarding school impacted her life forever. She was 7 when she was taken from her family, her hair cut, starved and assaulted.

“What I want from the United States are resources that can be used to help heal the deep wounds of generations of Indigenous people who have been affected by US residential school policies and the treatment of Indigenous children” , she said.

Panel chair Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (DN.M.) said Congress played a role in appropriating funds to send Indigenous children to these boarding schools.

“Our own country allowed children to die in federally funded schools,” she said.

She said the bill will also provide a family hotline and focus on the generational trauma Indigenous families have suffered as a result of residential schools.

One of the witnesses, Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in Minneapolis, said one of the challenges in obtaining records from these boarding schools is that churches, organizations and the federal government n did not cooperate in handing over the records.

Leger Fernandez asked if the subpoena power would help, which Parker agreed it would.

“That would make it an official record of the US Congress and for all of us to understand the needs of our boarding school survivors,” Parker said. “It would hold a public witness that would also open the doors to those who attended church-run schools.”

Rep. Jay Obernolte of California, the most Republican on the subcommittee, said the experience of Native children in boarding schools was “nothing short of horrific.”

The hearing took place a day after the publication of a Interior Ministry report who investigated the federal residential school system from 1819 to 1969 across the United States, and found over 400 schools and over 50 burial sites.

The report details methods of assimilation that Aboriginal children have experienced, such as renaming them from their traditional names to English names; to cut one’s hair; discourage or prevent the use of their traditional Indigenous languages, religions and cultural practices; and organizing indigenous children into units to perform military drills.

“It seems very clear that the harm that was done to Native American tribes was unfortunately done, deliberately for the purpose not only of forced cultural assimilation, but also of territorial disposition,” Obernolte said of the released report. Wednesday.

Obernolte added that he wanted commission members to also consider whether the truth commission should be allowed to have subpoena power, and whether the commission should be run by volunteers or whether those who lead investigations should receive compensation. The truth commission would cost about $200,000 a year.

He cautioned that allowing the commission to have subpoena power, which would give the panel the power to demand the testimony of a witness, might seem contradictory.

“We may be getting the truth, but we may be delaying the healing,” he said.

Parker said the commission needed subpoena power because boarding school survivors are aging and getting testimony from their tribal elders is crucial, noting that many have been lost to COVID-19. 19.

“It’s extremely important before we lose these stories and our elders,” she said.

No other Republicans on the subcommittee joined the hearing. Those lawmakers are Representatives Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa, Jerry Carl of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Cliff Bentz of Oregon.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who is a Catholic, said she knows the Catholic Church has covered up several abuses and thinks subpoena power should be granted to obtain those records.

“(Subpoenas) can prevent someone from preventing a commission or a group from uncovering the truth,” she said.


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