Lingering scars caused by residential boarding schools run deep for many Native American families, after decades of targeted efforts by U.S. government and religious leaders to stamp out tribal culture.
But more Native people are talking about what they, their parents, and grandparents experienced. They hope to break cycles of generational trauma caused by the schools, and explore how current education systems can change to better meet the needs of tribal communities and students.
This fall, a growing number of educators recognized Orange Shirt Day, created to raise awareness about residential boarding schools. The formal day of remembrance and reconciliation is commemorated on Sept. 30 each year. And Monday marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which for the first time will be a holiday in the city of Seattle.
Tribe members say the growing recognition of their communities — past and present — is a first step toward healing from the suffering of the past.
“We have to recognize that it happened … that’s the basis of the education in this territory,” said Chelsea Craig, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and assistant principal at Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary School, of the boarding schools that aimed to assimilate Native American children. “That’s the foundation of our public school system — if we don’t recognize that, we can’t do something different.”
It’s part of why Orange Shirt Day was created. First officially recognized by Canada in 2013, it is receiving more attention across the United States. This year, the day of remembrance felt especially notable for some, following a report from the U.S. Department of Interior that illustrates the devastating footprint of residential schools from coast to coast, and a papal apology issued to tribes in Canada earlier this summer for the Catholic church’s role in the operation of boarding schools.
The report identified hundreds of boarding schools established between 1819 and 1969 across the country, including sites in Tulalip and Tacoma. They were among 15 such schools that operated in Washington state.
Each family experienced the impact of residential schools differently. But many Native children came home with stories of neglect and abuse. Others were never heard from or seen by their families again.
Tribal elders and educators say that for many, the trauma inflicted by the boarding schools deeply shifted how they related to their culture, the land, themselves, and their families. Some people refused to speak their language at home, after being punished at the schools for doing so. It affected the way some tribe members approached parenting, and fueled substance abuse for others as they struggled to grapple with the overwhelming grief of losing their loved ones and witnessing different atrocities over the years.
The wide range of experiences still influences how many Native people still relate to schools today, said Sally Brownfield, a longtime educator and member of the Squaxin Island Tribe.
“The institution of school is what the United States government used to break down tribal culture … so it has been, and still is, hard for Native people to trust schools,” she said.
Data surrounding Native students in schools today paints a bleak picture of low test scores and graduation rates, showing stark disparities in how schools serve different groups of students. Some experts say the demographic data identifying Native children in schools is incomplete or inaccurate; Craig points to this as another example of the challenges students face in school systems that have not historically valued or recognized their cultural backgrounds.
“If you look at data of our Native students, we have historically failed them academically, but also that has an effect on the sustainability of us as people,” she said. “Part of that is we’re invisible.”
Anthony Craig, a professor at the University of Washington and citizen of the Yakama Nation, said more schools need to be aware of what “tribal sovereignty” fully encompasses. If they aren’t aware of what tribal nations are trying to do for or with their young people, so-called “formal” schooling can become an obstacle.
“There is … a ‘cultural mismatch’ between what we send our kids to do every day for six plus hours a day for 13 years or more, and what we believe is necessary and good for them,” he said.
That’s why even though Sept. 30 — the official date of Orange Shirt Day — has come and gone, its meaning is a key pillar of work to reshape what education looks like for and about Native people more broadly, Craig and others said. Tribe members are talking more openly about the stories of residential schools and the resilience of their culture, and schools and other governments — not just tribes — are implementing changes to better recognize and meet the needs of their Native students.
Some schools have started to talk more publicly about the damage that their own policies caused, as well.
Clarissa Williams, the La Conner School District’s community and cultural liaison and member of the Swinomish Tribe, says it was a huge step when the school board passed a resolution to formally recognize Orange Shirt Day, given the district’s history with children of the Swinomish tribe.
“There was a time when tribal students weren’t even allowed to eat lunch here at La Conner School District. They had to walk back home to the reservation and eat lunch, and by then who wants to walk back to school?” Williams said. “The school issuing the proclamation … it really just outlines the district’s commitment to building a better relationship with the community.”
Williams’ position was new to the district when she started last year, and she’s also part of a group that is going to present at the Washington State Council for the Social Studies conference in Seattle next month, giving other districts a template to use to engage with their nearest tribe.
Public schools are offering more direct opportunities for students, too. In Marysville and La Conner, Lushootseed — a language spoken among Coast Salish tribes — classes are being offered at the middle and high school levels following decades of efforts to record and revitalize the language. As dual language offerings expand in the state — where students learn in both English and a partner language — some schools have used tribal languages for their programs. Students in Wapato were the first in the state to receive a seal of biliteracy in Ichishkiin, a language spoken among the Yakama Nation.
Still, there’s a long way to go before more schools, not just those with strong ties to their local tribes, teach a more comprehensive and accurate history of tribal nations and recognize their culture and governance structures today. Despite Washington state requiring that schools implement the Since Time Immemorial tribal sovereignty curriculum, only about half of the state’s school districts have, according to a report last fall.
But right now, UW professor Craig says there’s an opportunity to chart a new path following the major school disruptions caused by the pandemic. For some Native students, being out of school gave them a chance to reconnect with their identity and community.
“We were all conditioned and brought up in these formal school settings that are very, very closely related to what our elders and ancestors survived in the boarding schools,” he said. “All of the things we accepted as status quo and necessary and firmly rooted got disrupted … it allows us to pause and breathe to ask collectively and communally, ‘what can we do for our kids right now?'”
Ultimately, the unique school stories and experiences of Native children and their families are just that — unique. But the resilience of their elders and ancestors has allowed them to carry on, said Brownfield.
Considering the losses of the past isn’t just an exercise in facing trauma — it also sparks hope.
The hope, Brownfield says, is that with growing awareness of the history of residential boarding schools, young people can better understand what it means for their own families and communities in everyday life.
There’s also hope that more recognize the power of their culture, passed down by previous generations despite the hardships they endured.
“We’re still here and we’re strong.”