Federal investigation into residential school graves seeks healing

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Home Secretary Deb Haaland recently announced the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative in part, “to address the intergenerational impact of residential schools.”

Interior Department

The United States is about to undertake a national investigation into hundreds of Indian residential schools which, from the 1800s to the 20th century, were used to “kill the Indian to save man,” according to the founder of a school.

June 22, Home Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative in a speech to the National Congress of American Indian (NCAI) at a virtual conference. This happened weeks after the discovery of 215 remains of Indigenous children at a school in British Columbia.

“To combat the intergenerational impact of residential schools and promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past,” Haaland said in his announcement. “No matter how difficult it will be.”

The Home Office oversees the Office of Indian Affairs which, along with denominations of the Christian church, was responsible for residential school practices from the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 through the late 1970s and beyond. .

From now on, the DOI will oversee a survey of more than 365 boarding school sites in the United States

From 1869 when the Peace Policy was enacted until 1978, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition estimated that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to these schools, which spanned 30 states, the majority in Oklahoma (83), Arizona (51), Alaska (33) and New Mexico (26).

In 1926, nearly 83% of Indian school-aged children attended residential schools, according to the organization.

What the investigation will involve

The federal initiative alone does not address the full range of injustices inflicted by the government on Indigenous peoples, but Indigenous leaders say it’s a start.

“We don’t know where this will take us, but we know it will lead us on the path of truth, and on the path of righteousness, and on the path of righteousness,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the NCAI.

The initiative will identify school sites where there may have been student burials, as well as children’s tribal affiliations; search DOI records for residential school supervision dating back to 1819; consulting with tribal nations, Alaska Native societies and Hawaiian Native organizations; and produce a final report to Haaland by April 1, 2022.

“The legacy of residential schools remains, manifesting itself in Indigenous communities through intergenerational trauma. Haaland wrote in a secretarial note dated June 22.

To date, more than 1,000 remains of mostly Indigenous children have been found in four Indian residential schools in Canada since May, schools where Indigenous students have been forced to assimilate into “white” culture.

That’s nearly a third of the estimated 3,213 student deaths documented in one of the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. in 2015. However, it also represents only 2.5% of the more than 150 school sites in Canada.

“The fallout from what we are seeing is not just numbers skyrocketing as the death toll rises,” Sharp said. “But the realization that there is a direct connection between this and every element of suffering and oppression that we have felt (for generations).

“No one escapes the historical trauma of boarding schools”

Many students at the boarding school have never returned to their families; some have been placed with foster families while others have disappeared. For generations, the descendants of the students who survived lived with inherited trauma.

“No one is immune to the historic trauma of residential schools,” said Agnes Williams, a Seneca Indian Elder who served as a delegate of the International Indian Treaty Council to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1983. “Drug addiction and addiction is, is, is part of it right now.”

A former social worker, Williams was the executive director of a child welfare agency, the Urban Indian Child Resource Center, in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1970s. There she recruited parents. native reception.

“When people were brought up in residential school, nobody taught them how to be parents,” she said. “So the next generation of Indians without parents are getting foster care and adoption, which is the next parody.”

Then, in 1978, mandatory residential school attendance for Native children, established in 1891, was abolished with the Indian Child Welfare Act, but the separations of Native families did not end there.

Very little work has been done to help families rehabilitate

“As the residential school era began to wane and change, it then evolved into a system of a different type, but one that still took children away, often for unnecessary reasons, and through public and private child protection agencies. Said David Simmons, director of government affairs and advocacy for the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA).

“There was very little work done to try to see if there was anything they could do to help families rehabilitate themselves, very little work done to really figure out if there were other members. family who might be able to intervene, ”he said.

“And generally, the reasons given for removing the children were quite fragile, compared to what we would normally consider good child safety practice.”

In 2012, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the State of Maine and the Wabanaki Confederacy found that Indigenous children in the state were five times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-Indigenous children, decades after the residential school era.

In one documented case, a Wabanaki woman recalled how her trauma was passed on to her children. She was placed in a non-Native home in the early 1960s where she was punished by being placed up to her neck in a tub of cold water. This experience stuck with her.

“If someone were to walk past me with water on their hands and do like that (hand movement), jokingly I get very angry, very quickly,” she said. in his report. “And, my kids found out when I was really young, you know, and I didn’t want to do that to them, it just was a reaction to that fear.”

Intensive placement of Indigenous children is a similar trend across the country. For example, in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 70% of Cherokee children in the Midwest had been placed in non-Indigenous foster homes, a practice that can lead to loss of identity.

Of 1,700 foster cases, 40% were due to parental opioid abuse.

“When you look at the current state of the Indian country, and the conditions of our citizens and our people with the highest measures of suicide, the highest measures of alcohol and drug abuse: that is all. an ethnic population that heals itself for centuries of pain. “said NCAI President Sharp.

However, the brain can heal from emotional trauma. Just as the brain adapts to negative experiences, this same neuroplasticity can be harnessed with certain therapies and art.

“If you have services, the brain is amazing, it can heal a lot of things. You can develop coping skills and you can become a relatively well functioning person even after trauma,” Simmons said. “But if you don’t have access to these services, it’s the same day in and day out and it can even get worse over time.”

The federal initiative is a judgmental moment for everyone

A 2018 report by the United States Civil Rights Commission titled “Broken Promises, ” found that U.S. federal programs intended to serve the social and economic well-being of Native Americans are chronically underfunded. In 2016, Native Americans received 28% of health care funding per person compared to federal health spending nationwide.

“Not only are we living with the impacts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, but we don’t even have the resources to begin to confront the healing,” said NCAI President Sharp.

With the announcement of the federal initiative, Sharp said it was a watershed moment, which she hopes will last for generations and not just within Indigenous communities.

“No one inside and outside of Indian country who is a citizen of the United States is immune to this story. It is our shared history,” said Sharp. “So for this reason it is urgent that we do not let another generation pass where this tragedy is ignored.”

While Sharp hopes the DOI initiative’s final report can establish a historical evidence base without the resources to deal with the profound impacts of forced resettlement and residential schools on Indigenous peoples, avenues to long-term healing may be. be compromised.

Copyright 2021 WXXI News.


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