US official shines light on dark part of federal Indian boarding schools
PHOENIX — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stopped in Arizona Friday for her nationwide tour called “The Road to Healing,” which gives survivors of the Federal Indian boarding school system and their families a chance to share their experiences.
“My ancestors, many of yours, endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” Haaland said.
During the session, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, Stephen Roe Lewis, explained the purpose of these schools was to strip children of their heritage.
“Many of our children were forcibly removed from our tribal communities, from our families, for one singular purpose, to transform our children by taking their culture, their language, their hair, their community and their sense of belonging,” Lewis said.
Hundreds of community members from Indian Reservations across the state filled the gym at the Gila Crossing Community School for Haaland’s listening session.
April Ignacio, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation, spoke on behalf of her grandmother, who went to the Tucson Indian School. She explained while attending the school, her grandmother was punished for speaking her native language.
“One of those stories I can recite is about how they split her tongue for speaking O’odham,” Ignacio said.
Ignacio recalled her grandmother was punished another time for telling stories to her classmates in their traditional language. She explained missionaries at the school put clothespins through her tongue.
“She sat in the desk for hours with blood and saliva overflowing across her hands and her dress,” Ignacio said.
Pershlie Ami, a citizen of the Hopi tribe, said she doesn’t know her culture as well as she would like because of her father’s experience at the Phoenix Indian School.
“I don’t speak my language. I don’t know my culture as well as I would like to, and that was a result of the boarding school era because my dad chose not to teach us because he was afraid that we would be beaten for it,” Ami said.
Ami also attended Phoenix Indian School and recalled it being like a military school. She then detailed what the school called “outings,” which she explained were opportunities for kids to earn money.
“You would volunteer to go out in an ‘outing,’ and these people would just come and pick you up. People didn’t really know who they were sending these kids out with, they would just come and get them and use them as labor for the day,” Ami said.
Haaland launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June of 2021 to shine a light on the history of boarding school policies and address the impact and trauma the practices left on families.
In May of 2022, Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary Newland released the first volume of an investigative report detailing the historical records related to these schools.
The department determined from 1819 to 1969, there were 408 federal boarding schools across the nation, with 47 in Arizona, the most in any state.
The report also found roughly 53 unmarked or marked burial sites across the country for the children who never returned home from boarding schools. Fourteen of those burial sites are present at a school location.
A second report is pending, focusing on the burial sites, the schools’ impact on communities and federal funds spent on the program.
Secretary Haaland is the first native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.