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The horrors of the Native boarding school era have gone unacknowledged for too long

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The horrors of the Native boarding school era have gone unacknowledged for too long

Dec 06, 2022 | 3:18 pm ET
By Rev. Katie Sexton-Wood
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The horrors of the Native boarding school era have gone unacknowledged for too long
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Students at an unidentified Arizona Indian School in 1945. Photo via Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records/Arizona Memory Project

As members of the Arizona Faith Network, we find strength in our differences. We are Sikh, Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Mormon, Lutheran, Muslim, Quaker, and Buddhist. We are reverends, rabbis, imams, and elders. We come from all across the state, nation, and world, and we all practice our faiths differently.

Yet, despite those contrasts, a few core values bind us together. For instance, we believe in the value of every human being. We believe in honest dialogue. And crucially, we believe in confronting and addressing injustice wherever we see it.

That understanding is what compels us to speak out about a dark and often-ignored chapter in American history: the Indian boarding school era.

Between 1819 and 1969, Christian churches worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. government to create hundreds of boarding schools for Native American children. The stated purpose of these schools was education, but education meant forcible assimilation of Native children into a white, Christian dominator society, intentionally stripping them of their culture and heritage.

Richard Henry Pratt, an Army officer and driving force behind these schools, infamously stated that these institutions were meant to “Kill the Indian and save the man.” As horrific as those words are, they still fail to capture the full cruelty of this era.

According to a new report from the Interior Department released this year, abuse and violence ran rampant. Educators frequently renamed children with English names, cut off hair, prohibited the use of Native languages and religions, and demanded extensive manual labor. The report also found 53 burial sites at boarding school locations, with more expected to be found as investigations continue.

Arizona, in particular, was a hub for these horrors. Our state was home to 47 boarding schools, second most in the nation behind only Oklahoma. Indian School Road cuts right across the heart of Phoenix, and if you follow it to the intersection of North Central Avenue, you can see a piece of boarding school history for yourself: the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center lies on the former site of the Phoenix Indian Industrial School. When the school opened in 1891, Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan said that “it’s cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.”

Daniella Zalcman, a member of Navajo Nation, attended a boarding school in the 1960s and recounted her experience in a 2016 article for Smithsonian Magazine: “It threatened our very survival, as it was intended to do. Our language eroded. Ceremonial and ritual ties weakened…Because speaking Navajo was forbidden, many children did not speak at all. Some disappeared or ran away; many never returned home.”

The legacy of the boarding school era lives on today. Families were torn apart, never to be made whole again. Cultural knowledge was destroyed, and communities were forever changed.

The night the Greyhounds came

Yet, there has never been a true reckoning on Native boarding schools. The faith groups that helped run these institutions have not yet publicly engaged with their past, and the U.S. government has similarly not yet upheld its responsibility to tribal nations by investigating and addressing this chapter of American history.

This must change.

For faith communities — including many of the ones that make up the Arizona Faith Network — that means beginning long-overdue discussions. How exactly were our communities complicit in this tragedy, and how can we work with our Native neighbors to move towards a more just future?

For lawmakers, it means supporting congressional efforts to kickstart a truth and healing process. Last September, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act (H.R. 5444/S. 2907) was introduced in both chambers of Congress. If passed, the legislation would create the first formal commission in U.S. history to investigate the human rights violations committed at these boarding schools and make recommendations for further government action.

In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly and Reps. Raul Grijalva, Ruben Gallego, Greg Stanton, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Tom O’Halleran have all co-sponsored this bill. We urge Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, David Schweikert, and Debbie Lesko to follow in their footsteps. Further, we urge all faith communities across the country to join our call and contact their lawmakers in support of this legislation.

We cannot undo the immense harm caused by these boarding schools. But with this legislation currently before Congress, we can begin charting a new path forward with tribal communities—one based on truth, transparency, and justice. Our faith and morals demand it.