OPINION: Saying ‘We love you’ to elders who survived boarding schools

Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition CEO
11/07/2020 10:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Imagine rarely, if ever, hearing the words “I love you” during your childhood. As unbelievable as this may seem, this was the experience of so many Native Americans who were forced to attend Indian boarding schools where many were routinely abused, neglected and tortured. They were isolated from their families and communities and forced to forget their cultures, all in the name of “civilization.”

This year, many of our elders are alone, socially distanced and quarantining from family and friends to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19. For some elders who attended Indian boarding schools, the isolation they may be experiencing might remind them of difficult experiences at these institutions when they were separated from family and community. 

Many children never returned home, and those who did survive these experiences were often changed forever. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of Native children were forced to attend the 367 known Indian boarding schools over the course of 100 years until about 1970. This strategic eradication of culture, community and family bonds unsurprisingly resulted in resulting in long-standing intergenerational trauma leading to cycles of violence, abuse, disappearances and premature deaths that impact Natives today.

In September, we started mailing out care packages to elders around the country to show them how important they are to us. These beautiful We Love You! Elder Care Packages have been arranged in partnership with Deborah Parker and volunteers from the Tulalip Tribes community in Washington state, filled with items created or produced by Indigenous artists, healers, entrepreneurs, companies and friends from across Turtle Island.

Our goal is to reach a thousand elders who have either survived their experiences at an Indian boarding school, or who are direct descendants of survivors who are over the age of 60. We invite all who qualify to apply for a care package at https://boardingschoolhealing.org.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is taking steps to address the painful legacy of Indian boarding schools. 

First of all, we are uncovering the truth to understand and document what actually happened during this period. Our researchers, program staff and partners are working with religious and government institutions to recover information and create a digital archive that can serve as an enduring and accurate record of the truth and help individuals who want to understand their family histories. It’s a lot of work, and it will be a long journey before the archive is ready.

Only by knowing the truth can healing then happen. We are focused on building a structure and program to engage survivors and descendants and facilitate healing. Part of this involves creating spaces for them to come together and share their stories. Trauma can be painful to relive – many understandably don’t want to share at first as it can open wounds and re-trigger their trauma. But sharing is an important part of healing even though as Indigenous peoples sometimes we don’t like to tell others about our trauma.

But it’s important for others to hear those stories, especially our families, to help them understand why things are the way they are, and how it has impacted them and Indian Country at large. We support a restorative justice process that includes an acknowledgement of history – something this country has never done. We’re thrilled about the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the U.S.” sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) The conversation is catching on and to have elected leaders help lead the charge now is phenomenal.

So, whether you are a survivor, descendant, advocate or ally, we need you to be part of this conversation. We invite you to join allies like the band “Portugal. the Man” which has volunteered to sponsor packages, and we’d love to have you join us as members of our healing coalition. 

Our elders carry irreplaceable wisdom, traditional teachings and ancestral languages from our homelands, and we are thankful for all their presence and patience among us.


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