Sept. 30, Friday, is Orange T-shirt day, named for a child who had her shiny new T-shirt taken from her on her first day at a residential school. The T-shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was never returned.
The more formal name for today is the Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools. It’s a time to pause to recall the many ways our ancestors, our families and our communities were traumatized by the boarding school system, a project intended to erase our culture and ways of life — an effort many have called genocide.
The “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report” was released this year as a response to the identification of 169 unmarked graves of First Nations children who attended the St. Bernard Mission School in Alberta, Canada. Requested by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (member of the Laguna Pueblo), the report shows that the agenda was even broader then earlier thought: “The assimilation of Indian children through the Federal Indian boarding school system was intentional and part of that broader goal of Indian territorial dispossession for the expansion of the United States.”
In other words, they took our children in part to make it easier to take our lands.
This is not a surprising revelation to the Suquamish Tribe. The timing of the allotment of the reservation (1886), the beginning of mandatory attendance of Suquamish children at Tulalip and other schools (1900-1920), the condemnation of the Old Man House village by the military (1905) and the passage of laws allowing forced sale of reservation lands (1906) was not a coincidence.
We are urging Congress to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) after nearly 10 years of research, has identified at least 367 schools that operated in the United States. But NABS has located just 38% of the records for the 367 schools, and few have been fully analyzed.
We need to learn more, including the number of children forced to attend the schools, the number who were abused, died or went missing. And we need to know the long-term impacts on the children and the families of children who were forced to attend the Indian Boarding Schools. The Truth and Healing Commission can help with this much-needed investigation.
The Interior Department report recommends investments in language preservation and revitalization to counter the impacts of the assimilation efforts of the federal government. We agree that language revitalization is important and necessary. But the broader goal of assimilation was to take our reservation and other lands, and the Suquamish Tribe will be pressing the federal government to increase investment in land restoration as part of the relief owed to our Tribe for the suffering and long-term impacts of the Boarding School era.
We must also work on identifying best practices to address the trauma. Many of the students adapted, endured and found ways to overcome and succeed within the system, and became mentors and leaders of their tribal nations despite the intent of the boarding school system. Still, many suffered in the past and many former students and their offspring continue to struggle today.
Anger and resentment are justified, but we must commit ourselves to the healing process. I believe some of the healing has begun through our investment in our cultural programs, including language revitalization, our new museum and the tribal Canoe Journeys.
This is a difficult and traumatic process for our people, and we need to take care of ourselves as more information is discovered regarding burial sites and the destructive practices employed at the boarding schools where school instructors and officials worked to eliminate the language and culture of the Indian students.
Many of us might struggle with the challenges of reliving this dark era and its aftermath. Still, healing begins with a reckoning of what took place, and that means full disclosure, acknowledgment and reparations through land restoration.