Ramona Klein’s voice trembled as she sat in front of a US House subcommittee in Washington DC, recalling horrific childhood memories of the Fort Totten Indian Boarding School in North Dakota, where she was a student.
There, she said, she was starved, beaten, humiliated and sexually assaulted. At times, she would find herself looking out the cold window of her hostel, longing for home and seeing her mother and father.
Klein was 7 years old when she and five other siblings were cut off from her parents and sent to school under a federal program to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white society – a program that helped 150 Faced the challenge for more than a year.
“I remember watching my mother stand and see six of my eight children getting into a big green bus and taken to Fort Totten,” Klein, now 74, testified on Thursday, May 12. “That image is forever etched in my mind and in my heart.”
Klein, a teacher and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians, was one of several American Indians who spoke in support of Representative Sharis Davids’ HR 5444, The Truth, at a Thursday hearing before the Subcommittee for the Indigenous Peoples of the United States. I spoke. and the Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act.
The hearing came a day after the Interior Department released the first of its kind investigative report that revealed that more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children attended 19 Indian boarding schools from the early 19th century. Till died. 1960s.
As the federal investigation continues, the Interior Department expects the death toll to rise to the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, according to reports.
The study identified 408 boarding schools that operate in 37 states, or territories, as well as 53 burial sites in the federal boarding school system, a number that is expected to increase during the investigation.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and the first American Indian to lead a federal agency, launched an investigation in June 2021 amid grim discoveries of the skeletal remains of hundreds of indigenous children at boarding East India. School in Canada.
It has become difficult to account for the number of child deaths because records were not always kept. According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic also limited the Interior Department’s ability to access research and documents and their home facilities.
Sherman Indian High School, formerly the Sherman Institute in Riverside and the former St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning, now in ruins, are among the hundreds of boarding schools that are expected to take years of multiphase investigation.
Sherman is one of only four remaining Indian boarding schools in the country still run by the federal government. The other three are in Oregon, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The Interior Department said the second section of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in schools and the effects of boarding schools on Indigenous communities.
Tribal leaders have put pressure on the agency to ensure that any remains of the children are properly looked after and, if desired, returned to their tribes.
Davids, D-Kansas, said during Thursday’s hearing that David’s law would complement the Interior Department’s investigation by establishing a formal commission to investigate and document assimilation practices in Indian boarding schools and indigenous peoples of their culture and language. Their policies to snatch away.
“This bill does not copy the efforts of the Department of the Interior, but expands and continues to acknowledge that legacy with the help of survivors, tribal leaders, policy experts and communities who can help guide this process.” ,” said Davids, a member. Ho-chunk nation of Wisconsin and first LGBT American Indian elected to Congress.
Brian Newland, assistant secretary of the Interior Department for Indian Affairs, said the report presents an opportunity for the federal government to rework its policies to support the revitalization of tribal languages and cultural practices.
“This reorientation of federal policy is necessary to counter nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at the destruction of Aboriginal languages and cultures,” Newland said in the report.
Newland also called for, among other things, prioritizing research into the more than 98 million documents collected or discovered during the investigation, identifying survivors of Indian boarding schools, such as those who spoke during Thursday’s hearing in Washington, and Documenting your experiences is recommended.
Weight of local tribal members
Assemblyman James Ramos, a member of the San Manuel band of Mission Indians and former president of the tribe, said the number of child deaths reported by the federal government is not surprising, and testifies to what tribal communities know.
Before the death of her grandmother, Martha Manuel Chacón, at the age of 89 in March 2000, she recounted her childhood experiences in a recorded interview at St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning.
Chacon said students subsist on beans, two slices of bread and water daily and were fed hot dogs and potatoes and bread on Sundays, while priests enjoyed roast beef, cakes and pies in their dining rooms.
On one occasion, after slapping a domineering nun who was taunting and threatening her, she was ordered to remove her blouse and hit with a leather strap.
“It was painful,” Ramos said in a telephone interview. “Even after all these years, when she was picking it up she fell silent and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. My grandmother was able to get the reservation back, but many others were not allowed back home. ,
He said that the awareness that has now been created about what happened in Indian boarding schools starts the process of recovery for so many indigenous people.
“It begins to open that door to healing, because there is now a true acceptance that this has happened,” Ramos said. “And now there’s more advocacy around it.”
Anthony Morales, president of the Gabrielo San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, commends the federal government for its investigation, but questions why it doesn’t extend to the California mission system, where thousands of indigenous people died during similar assimilation processes. Went.
He said about 6,000 indigenous people – from his tribe and others from across the country – were killed at the San Gabriel Mission and buried there and around it.
“The mission system was no different from the (Indian) boarding school system,” Morales said. “To me, what’s the difference?”
Charles Martin, president of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, said in a statement that the government’s report is an important first step toward acknowledging the “dark history of previous federal policies of assimilation” among indigenous peoples, resulting in “untold people.” of heart-wrenching deaths”. Number of children ,
“More work is needed to identify these abuses and historical mistakes that try to erase tribes, Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal cultures, and children who were stolen from their families before they disappeared into the system,” Martin said. “
In a statement Thursday, San Manuel President Lynn Valbuena said the tribe and other Indigenous communities are grappling with the tragic experiences of the federal boarding school system to this day.
“This Interior Department report confirms what we have known for generations, that this nation cannot limit these traumas to a bygone era,” Valbuena said. “We are encouraged to see that healing and reconciliation should include the continued restoration of our native languages and customs that were nearly lost to us,” this report states.
Klein remembers hiding under the blankets of the rough wool army at Fort Totten as she was hunted by Matron’s son.
“I remember being afraid to sleep at night, afraid of Matron’s son, who would walk down the hall at night using a flashlight to see me in bed,” said Klein, his voice trembling as She was speaking during Thursday’s hearing. “He touched me like a child should never be touched.”
And, like many other Indigenous girls brought up in boarding schools, Klein remembers her long hair being cut short like a boy’s, then combed thoroughly with kerosene because it was believed that her head Lice was This earned him the name “Butch” by his peers in school.
Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, or NABS, which is assisting the federal government in its investigation, said that aside from sexual abuse, students were often kept in solitary confinement and held each other with gauntlets. Or was made to discipline. leather straps.
And, of course, the children died.
“The children were beaten to death,” said Parker, a member of the Tulip Tribes in Washington. She said that death was so prevalent that graveyards were built on the school grounds.
“To the voices of those who never got a chance to return home, to those forever changed by this extreme brutality, to those who were chained to basement radiators, sexually abused Went, told them to wash and go back. As for the marching lines, which were said to be forgotten, we’re here to remind you to remember these kids,” Parker said .
The Indigenous People’s subcommittee did not vote on David’s bill on Thursday. It will accept written testimony until May 26, said NABS spokeswoman Jennifer Blevins.