Tribal Elders Testify to Boarding School Horrors

Haaland hears Native Americans' accounts of mistreatment in government-backed program
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 9, 2022 3:00 PM CDT
Tribal Elders Testify to Boarding School Horrors
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, shown Friday at Yellowstone National Park, heard Saturday about the experiences of Native Americans who were sent to government-backed boarding schools.   (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP)

Native American tribal elders who were once students at government-backed Indian boarding schools testified Saturday in Oklahoma about the hardships they endured, including beatings, whippings, sexual assaults, forced haircuts, and painful nicknames. They came from different states and different tribes, but they shared the common experience of having attended the schools that were designed to strip Indigenous people of their cultural identities. As the elders spoke, the AP reports, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico and the first Native American Cabinet secretary in US history, listened quietly.

"I still feel that pain," said 84-year-old Donald Neconie, who served in the Marines and is a member of the Kiowa Tribe. He attended the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, about 80 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. "I will never, ever forgive this school for what they did to me." The event was held at the school, which still operates today but with a vastly different mission. It was the first stop on a yearlong nationwide tour to hear the experiences of Native Americans who were sent to the government-backed boarding schools. Neconie recalled being beaten if he cried or spoke his native Kiowa language at Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s. "Every time I tried to talk Kiowa, they put lye in my mouth," he said. "It was 12 years of hell."

Haaland said her ancestors were affected. "Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know," she told the gathering. "Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry the trauma in our hearts." Haaland's agency recently released a report that identified more than 400 of the schools, which sought to assimilate Native children into white society from the late 18th century until the late 1960s. Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, a Kiowa who attended Riverside in the 1940s, said she recalled older Kiowa women who served as house mothers in the dormitories letting her speak her Native language and treating her with kindness. "I was helped," WhiteHorse said. "I'm one of the happy ones."

(Read more Native Americans stories.)

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