Report documenting boarding school deaths, abuse and loss of culture is a good first step, advocates say

A report on Native American boarding schools from the U.S. Interior Department has prompted calls for Congress to do more to investigate the deaths, abuse and loss of culture that occurred at the schools.

Many see the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report as just the beginning of the federal government’s attempts to document the systemic and forced assimilation of Indigenous children at boarding schools.

That includes the Friends Committee on National Legislation and its congressional advocate for Native American policy, Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock.

Skenandore-Wheelock says a critical next step for the Interior Department is collecting and documenting stories from survivors and their descendants.

“We do need to do as much as possible to not only receive their testimony,” she says, “But to help them with their healing and sort of start to break down some of that intergenerational trauma that they’ve been carrying.”


The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Essentially, the goal there was, “You can’t do much about the adults, so let’s focus on the children. Let’s westernize them and have them adopt Western agricultural practices,” which is very different than traditional tribal practices. So that was one of the main goals there. And, you know, to some extent, that was a very successful part of the policy.

Casey Grove: How did this work? I mean, we’ve heard stories from folks, and there’s definitely people here in Alaska, Alaska Native people, that lived this, and this isn’t going to come as any surprise to them. But for folks that don’t know what happened at the schools and how that forced assimilation worked, could you explain that?

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Well, so really, the foundation is you need to remove the children from their parents, from their tribal communities. And essentially, by removing the children from that structure that they would have been raised in and shifting it to being completely isolated — essentially being raised with a lot of fear and shame and violence, contrary to how they would have been raised in their own tribal communities — there were a number of ways in which the government and church leaders were able to do that. One was by force. You physically removed the children by force. Another was using tools of starvation, right? So if you remove large groups of people to reservations, they can no longer sustain themselves in their own ways. So they’re completely reliant then on the federal government for food and for commodities. So if you withhold food, until they give your child, you’re really forcing their hand. So there are a lot of unconscionable practices like that in order to actually get the children in their care.

Casey Grove: Does this report from the Department of Interior, at this point, does it get into the things that actually happened at the boarding schools, like not allowing Native children to use their their Native languages, or the physical or emotional abuse that people say occurred?

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Yes, so they do get into the curriculum a bit. And that included extensive military drills, a lot of manual labor, of course, Christian teachings, were a part of that as well. And then the abuses ranged from the withholding of food, being locked out of the school in cold winters, which you can imagine in Alaska would be really terrifying for a young child. And you’d have to think, too, a lot of these kids were as young as four years old. Solitary confinement and being chained up, hit physically and sexually assaulted. All of that has been documented, but sort of the next step for Interior over this next year is they’re going to go around the country and collect more stories and testimony from both survivors and their descendants. And this is why this is so timely. There are still living survivors. So we do need to do as much as possible to not only receive their testimony, but to help them with their healing and sort of start to break down some of that intergenerational trauma that they’ve been carrying.

Casey Grove: And of course we refer to them as survivors, because there are people that didn’t make it through this and didn’t come home and are presumably buried at some of these sites with unmarked graves. Why were there burial sites at these schools? Why is that such a big part of the story?

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Well, death was so common that these schools had both marked and unmarked graves on site. You know, there have also been stories about mass graves where there either wasn’t any time or care or concern, whatever the issue, to actually have individual graves. But essentially those deaths, they’re due to a number of things. Neglect is a big one. Abuse as well. Starvation. Sickness. So many children did not survive these institutions. And I think that’s where that accountability piece comes in. And that’s why, even though a number of tribal organizations and tribal nations have been doing some of this work themselves over the years, there really is a need for both the faith community to be involved and the federal government for that accountability.

Casey Grove: Does this report get into those longterm generational trauma issues, that cultural trauma that that still exists? I mean, does it describe that at all?

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: It does. There is a section near the end of the report that talks about the consequences and the intergenerational trauma that tribes are continuing to navigate as they reclaim everything that all of these institutions essentially tried to destroy. And it’s really heartbreaking, the state of Indian Country today. There are many beautiful things. There’s a lot of younger people, especially, learning their language and revitalizing traditional agricultural practices. But there are still a lot of struggles. There’s a lot of people that are battling addiction as a way to cope with that trauma and essentially just trying to survive a world that doesn’t really fit or understand Indigenous people. You have the missing and murdered crisis, where Native women and girls, especially, are assaulted and trafficked and killed with little to no consequence. Poverty conditions on a lot of reservations are comparable to third world countries. And then we continue to have ugly mascot depictions that penetrate the psyches of Native youth, which have very extreme high risks of suicide. So all of that and more is really rooted in the crimes that were committed against these first families that were torn apart by these policies. So until we address the crimes of the boarding school era, those real life consequences are going to continue.

Casey Grove: Well, so what’s gonna happen with this issue going forward? I mean, you mentioned that this report is kind of a first step in a way, what do you foresee happening here in the future?

Portia Kay^nthos Skenandore-Wheelock: Well, I feel like as Interior’s work continues, a lot of that is finding Interior records and documents, cataloging the schools, and finding more burial sites, also documenting how much federal funding went into these institutions. But to build on that work and continue that work, what we really need is for Congress to take action. Congress can establish a federal commission, the first of its kind in the U.S. to really start holding the government accountable for this devastating policy, and spend about five years if this commission were established to really investigate more of the human rights violations that took place and then that commission would make recommendations to Congress to take further action. And further action can mean, what are next steps? How can we better support Indigenous languages that are dying? These schools, that was one of their main goals, was to destroy language and culture. How can we revive language and culture to kind of counteract some of the more devastating impacts of this policy?

Alaska Public Media

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