Farina King on Indigenous People’s Day, 2021

Dr. Farina King, author of The Earth Memory Compass

This Indigenous People’s Day, I think of Indigenous childhoods through generations, honoring the children who survived and those who we must always remember. Remembering is an action.

Shí éí Bilagáanaa nishłí̹ dóó Kinyaa’áanii báshíshchíín. Bilagáanaa dashicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dashinálí. I just introduced myself by my clans, acknowledging my ancestors and kin as a woman of white English-American settler descent born for the Towering House and Black-Streaked Woods People of the Diné. I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the daughter of a boarding school survivor. I grew up with the stories of Indian boarding schools from my father and paternal relatives. Their stories have drawn me to understand Diné and diverse Indigenous experiences in boarding schools over generations.

I exist, because my father survived boarding school, and his mother before him survived boarding school, and her father before her survived boarding school, and his parents before him survived the Long Walk—the forced removal and concentration of Diné at Hwééłdi, “Land of the Suffering.” Because of my ancestors, my children and I have the opportunity to thrive as Diné. These thoughts really hit me recently, as I ponder how the US government is finally launching a Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative through the leadership of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

In my first book, The Earth Memory Compass (University Press of Kansas 2018), I share the story of how my father ran away from the Ramah Indian Boarding School. I woke up recently crying, rethinking my father’s story of running away because it dawned on me that my father almost did not survive boarding school. He almost froze to death when he ran away with another boy in the winter. I asked him if I could share this story again, and he consented to it. He told me how bullies at the school led him to run away, and he asked friends if they wanted to run away with him. Another boy decided to come with him because he also wanted to go home. On their way they got caught in a canyon during a snow drift that almost killed them. But they were fortunately found by a rancher who saved their lives. I thought of all the stories of boarding school runaways and how some children died that same way that my father almost did—freezing to death in their attempt to return home. When I asked him why he ran away, he told me that he “did not run away from the education.”

Think of all the daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters who are family and never returned home or passed away soon after getting home. Think of their posterity that could have been. My father should have never had to face such struggles and hardships. This history lives on in him, me, and my children. Diné and many Native American and Indigenous peoples continue to fight every day for basic human rights such as access to clean water, shelter, food, healthcare, and schooling for and by their own people. The Navajo Nation is still fighting to reclaim Diné education.

My father may have survived the boarding school, but he suffered many injuries—and not just physical ones. He will never say these things because he does not live his life as a victim. He is an active agent who has persevered much but has also lived in joy and peace. Yet my father never taught me and my siblings Diné bizaad, so I fear that the seed of the Navajo language that he has carried may not survive. There is much that we still must do to pursue healing. And it is important to recognize that healing is not a checkbox to be marked off. Healing is a cyclical, ongoing journey through generations and time.

Indigenous kinship, community networks, and protocols are essential to understanding Indian boarding schools and to the ongoing journeys of healing and reconciliation. There are many different tribal nations and Indigenous communities, including some that are intertribal in urban settings. Every specific context and Indigenous community and kinship networks must be connected hand-in-hand with these initiatives to address the effects of Indian boarding schools. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and so many others have been paving the way for this truth, healing, and reconciliation. My friends Marsha Small and Preston McBride have been working on finding and accounting for the lost boarding schoolchildren, including those in unmarked mass graves, who did not survive Indian boarding schools. We are collaborating on providing guides to Indigenous protocols based on our experiences and work.

We need to support one another in these efforts to acknowledge and learn of the truths, perspectives, and experiences of Indian boarding schools; to stop the boarding school legacy of genocidal practices and approaches that seek to eradicate Indigeneity; and to embrace and support Indigenous sovereignties, ways of knowing, and education. Value Indigenous stories, histories, and lives. Actions reveal these values. We can return the lost boarding schoolchildren home by finding them, learning about them, and supporting and connecting with their families and Indigenous communities that include boarding school survivors.

My forthcoming book that I am coauthoring with Mike Taylor and James Swensen is tentatively called Returning Home because of such interconnections of healing and reconciling Indian boarding school pasts with Indigenous communities today and their futures. Please continue the languages that the children were punished for speaking; be sure the sick, hungry, and homeless of Indigenous communities can receive care and support; teach all about Indigenous histories from Indigenous perspectives and voices; and listen to Indigenous communities, following their directions and guidance toward healing. These are only some beginning steps, but we all need to begin somewhere step by step. Boarding school history matters because Native American families have paid far too great a price to educate their children, and they continue to pay that price to this day.

Dr. Farina King is assistant professor of history and affiliate of the Cherokee and Indigenous Studies Department at Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Bodies and Boarding Schools

By: David Wallace Adams, author of Education for Extinction; American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928

Recent news of the discovery of hundreds of Native American children’s graves at a site of a former boarding school in Canada has brought to public attention one of the most tragic chapters in the history of Indigenous peoples in North America, including the United States—the story of how Native children were removed, often forcibly, from their families and communities and placed in distant boarding schools where missionaries or government officials went about the business of eradicating cultural identities in the name of “civilization” and assimilation.

Having spent more than forty years studying and writing about Indian boarding schools, I was not terribly surprised by recent revelations but felt compelled to comment on a subject so close to the focus of my own work. For those unfamiliar with this chapter in Native American history, it may be surprising to learn of the extent to which the systematic removal of Native children from their families and communities and placing them in boarding schools, both reservation and off-reservation, was a major component of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century federal Indian policy. While it is nearly impossible to calculate the number of Indigenous children who attended such schools, my own analysis is that if a survey of Native Americans had been made in 1930, it would have shown that approximately 70-80 percent of the population attended such an institution at some point in their life. It is also important to point out that, unlike Canada, most of the enrollment in the United States was in federal (not mission) schools.

While it is true that many children adapted to the regimentation of boarding school life and saw their time of enrollment as an opportunity for acquiring knowledge and skills that would facilitate their survival in white society, for most the prolonged separation from family constituted terribly traumatic experiences which left emotional scars for years to come. Not the least of these painful memories was seeing fellow students stricken by raging epidemics of influenza, measles, pneumonia, and tuberculosis that swept through the school. Overcrowded dormitories, inadequate food, severe discipline policies, military-like regimentation, and other institutional realities all contributed to one of the darkest consequences of the boarding school experience—school cemeteries. Many of the bigger schools possessed such plots. How many of these undiscovered grounds exist, we still do not know.

The graveyard at Carlisle Indian School, one of the largest of the off-reservation institutions, contains 192 bodies with names like Lucy Pretty Eagle, Maud Little Girl, Dennis Strikes First, as well as the gravestone marked Unknown. Similarly, there are some one hundred graves at Haskell Institute, located in Lawrence, Kansas. Again, the names: Jerry Wolf Chief, Maggie Big Fire, and Charles Panther. Students’ knowledge of the school cemeteries couldn’t help but rattle their minds. Would they ever make it home? In his memoir, My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear, who attended Carlisle in the early years, says the news of a fellow student dying “worked on our nerves to such an extent that it told on our bodies.”

Some thirty years ago I interviewed an elderly Navajo (Diné) man who attended the off-reservation school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and who at one point was so consumed by pneumonia that he lay in a hospital bed for several months. Near-death, and slipping in and out of consciousness, his only relief was hearing what he thought to be that of tinkling bells. It must be the sheep, he imagined. Back on the reservation, he had spent countless hours herding sheep. And now he was hearing the familiar sound. “I could hear the bells. I know the sheep was pretty close. Them days, if you don’t hear those bells, you’d better go look for them. So I had the dream all the time. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t hurtin’ no place.” And so he managed to pull through.

The number of children who never came home was a major reason why many parents resisted turning their children over to school officials. In 1891, a chief in the Spokane Nation, which had lost sixteen of the twenty-one youths sent to eastern schools, declared, “If I had white people’s children, I would have put their bodies in a coffin and sent them home so that they could see them. I do not know who did it, but they treated my people as if they were dogs.”

Meanwhile, boarding school employees scrambled to keep the death number down, and most cared for sick children in the most humane manner possible. Many reasoned that sending homesick children to the poverty of the reservation would only seal their fate. The long distances and weather also came into play. At the same time, however, some dismissed the school’s responsibility for school deaths by claiming that many children were already showing signs of illness before arriving at school and consequently it was not attributable to school conditions. And then there was the all-to-common motivation to send a stricken child home once a serious illness was discovered with the likeliness of death, thereby reducing the risk of raising bureaucratic eyebrows in Washington for the school’s rising death toll.

With Secretary of Interior Haaland’s recent announcement of a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to explore the extent of burials across the boarding school system, one cannot help but wonder whether the numbers unearthed will approaching those of Canada. A thorough investigation will tell us, but I suspect not. While Canadian and US systems were driven by similar motives, like the erasure of Native cultures and land dispossession, as suggested earlier, there were also significant differences. Besides the proportional difference in the number of schools operated by the churches, there were also differences in bureaucratic oversight, at least after the 1870s when policymakers created an inspection system to monitor developments in the field.

Whatever the outcome on numbers, the fact remains that the history of Indian boarding schools constitutes one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s past, a story strewn with pain, moral atrocities, and the ghosts of children crying out for home.