Tribal boarding schools have improved a lot, but the legacy of the old schools remains
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has apologized. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called it a “heartbreaking” part of US history. Congress is considering legislation to atone for the government’s actions.
Few would dispute that residential schools led to more than a century of abuse, systematically taking over Indigenous lands, separating children from their families, destroying communities and working to erase languages, religions , tribal cultures and economies. Poor conditions and mistreatment in schools are responsible for the deaths of countless numbers of indigenous children who were supposed to be in government custody.
While abuse was a thing of the past, schools are not entirely. Arizona, home to 47 Federal Indians boarding schools at one time still has eight such schools today.
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Advocates say the modern schools are not perfect. But they are a far cry from the horrors of the past.
“They’re not run the way schools were run in 1925,” said Tsianina Lomawaima, of Mvskoke (Creek) descent and a retired professor of Native studies at Arizona State University.
Schools today are no longer in the “historical assimilation model,” said Stephen Curley, director of digital archives at the National Native American Boarding School. Healing Coalition, because the previous structure “no longer exists”.
Five of Arizona’s eight boarding schools today are operated by the Bureau of Indian Education and the other three are controlled by the tribe. Since the IBE and Indigenous nations took “operational leadership” of the schools, the program has become more culturally competent with a greater emphasis on cultural revitalization and exchange, Curley said.
This was echoed by Haaland in June during testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the first volume of an Interior Department investigation into schools. The report describes abuses at the 408 federal residential schools that operated in 37 states between the early 1800s and the 1960s.
haaland said modern schools, “Many … have native teachers, native principals, native superintendents. There is culturally relevant education for every Indigenous student in each of these schools.
It has not always been the case.
Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet post, ordered the review of schools and embarked on a listening tour across the country to hear from residential school survivors. Interior officials said this summer that his tour would stop in Arizona before the end of this year, but they couldn’t say when.
Experts say the previous structure of boarding schools still affects indigenous communities. Students who attended the schools and families from which they were separated often experienced intense emotional and physical trauma. This kind of intense trauma doesn’t just go away, said David Simmons, director of government affairs at the National Indian Child protection Association.
“One generation, after another generation, after another generation, over 100 years of families are going through this,” Simmons said. “And today, of course, what we see are people who have been separated from their communities and who have relatives who live on tribal lands, but they themselves have never been there because they were deported and their families, their grandparents were deported.”
Regardless of the impact, however, the common factor “of separating families from children, was wrong,” Lomawaima said. Simmons said 30% to 40% of children who attended schools never returned home because they died as a result of “illness or difficult working conditions or different types of abuse”.
The interior survey identified marked and unmarked burial sites at about 53 different schools across the country, a number that department investigators plan to increase.
Despite the damage, indigenous communities resisted and survived. Lomawaima said there was “not a story, there was not an impact” on the Indigenous children who attended the schools.
“It ranged from people who, because of their strength and resilience, and their own resources, thrived in schools at certain times and in certain places, to people who were effectively destroyed by them.” she declared.
Lomawaima said that “there is no doubt that they have done damage, but they have not been entirely successful in that goal”, of destroying native life.
Curley cited the Navajo Nation as an example of resilience. The Navajo reservation had the majority of federal Indian boarding schools in Arizona, a “strategic” move by federal authorities who saw in the tribe’s large population a need for “many institutions to assimilate them”. Despite this, he said, the Navajo Nation and its nearly 400,000 members is still vibrant today.
Arizona, with 47 tribal schools in the past was second only to Oklahoma, which had 76, according to the Interior Department report.
Along with the listening tour and the first volume of the report, advocates hope the government will continue to address the legacy of boarding schools and work to address what Simmons called “this historic trauma that many families live on a daily basis and which has not been treated properly”,
The house and Senate both are considering bills to establish a Truth and Healing Commission that would investigate the impacts and ongoing effects of residential schools and develop recommendations for federal government action.
“This is about righting a wrong and making sure it never happens again,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, co-sponsor of the house bill, who left the committee in June. “It’s our responsibility, I’m happy to see the movement forward.”
Despite the reforms, Indigenous enrollment in schools has shifted from boarding schools to public schools, where about 95 percent of Indigenous children are enrolled today, Lomawaima said. Even there, she says, Indigenous students face many challenges, one being that many public schools do not have or require any type of education for Indigenous students to learn the language or life. native.
“Many, many, many public schools don’t have any of these (Indigenous cultural) programs in place,” Lomawaima said. “There is no single answer, there is no simple answer” on how best to educate Indigenous children.