The past two years have been a succession of firsts in Indian Country: The first time a Native American was appointed to a cabinet position, the first time the federal government looked at its role in Indian boarding schools, and the first time the government organized an effort to connect oral testimonies of survivors of the schools and their descendants.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo)—along with Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community)—began the Road the Healing Tour in Caddo County, Oklahoma, in July with the intention of collecting oral testimonies of those who experienced Indian boarding schools and their descendants. The Interior Department heads made their second stop in Pellston, Michigan, the following month and are slated to travel to Hawai’i, Arizona, and South Dakota as part of The Road to Healing tour in 2022. Additional states will be announced for 2023.
The Road to Healing initiative was launched in conjunction with the release of Volume 1 of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The report, penned by Newland, recommended connecting with Indigenous communities and hearing about their experiences in boarding schools directly.
This week, Native News Onlinespoke with Secretary Haaland about what she’s heard from tribal citizens and survivors on tour thus far, how she’s been caring for herself, and the next steps in the federal investigation into Indian boarding schools. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Native News Online: So we’ll get right into the questions and Secretary Haaland. You’ve had two listening tours now for The Road to Healing. And I guess my question is: what have you learned? I know you’ve heard from the survivors, but what have you learned from tribal leaders and what they may need in the federal government to move forward towards healing?
Secretary Haaland: As you might know, we are talking to tribal leaders, even when we’re not at a Road to Healing event. We’re in close contact with them, and they had a tremendous amount of input, and we’ve consulted with them extensively over this entire initiative. So, I’ll say what I always say — it’s up to the tribal leaders on how they want to deal with things. You knew that I went to Carlisle Indian School when several tribes wanted to essentially repatriate the children from Carlisle back to their ancestral homelands. Not every tribe may want to do that. Whatever they want us to help them with, they want to see their version of healing with respect to this initiative. That’s what we want to do.
The intergenerational trauma, of course, has been incredibly burdensome. So we’re cognizant of that, too. If tribal leaders want additional help with respect to this issue. We’ll just do whatever we possibly can. I know that justice isn’t always going to look the same for everyone. But I think all of us can agree, and every tribe can agree, that our work with Native language revitalization is incredibly important. So those are some things I know we are paying attention to.
Native News Online: What are some throughlines you’re hearing from boarding school survivors and their descendants? I know it’s hard to generalize because it’s likely so across the board, but is there anything that’s particularly stuck out to you?
Secretary Haaland: So we’ve done two Road to Healing events so far, and they have lasted over six hours each. The crowd thins out a little over time, but there are people who want to be heard. And so we are there. Right? We understand that sometimes, just getting things off your chest, just being able to say it out loud, means something to them. So, I think most of all, we want to make sure that we are there to listen.
Additionally, the support that we can offer that the Indian Health Service has been on hand for seems that it’s been incredibly helpful to them, as well. We’ve done two so far. Each one has been a different experience. Some of the stories from Michigan seem so recent, right? People who worked at the school [are] alive in their communities. We just want to be there to listen, [and] we want to have this oral history so that every American knows that this happened. And, of course, the healing part is the most important thing.
Native News Online: Madam Secretary, I was actually at both of those events, and I did see the difference. And listening to those stories for six hours is pretty impactful. My heart goes out to you. How are you dealing with it?
Secretary Haaland: Thank you for that question. I’ll be honest with you, it tires me out. It takes a lot out of you to listen. I’ve taken copious notes at both of our events so that I can always remind myself of what … every single person’s story is. So I’ll be quite honest with you, when I’m taking that information in, it takes a lot of me. I get really tired, your body reacts to someone else’s trauma. And, of course, initially, I want to put my arms around each person and tell them that things will be OK. Obviously, that’s a difficult thing to do. But my heart is theirs while I’m there. I just recognize how important it is to them. It’s a sacrifice for all of us. My grandmother went to boarding school, and I suffer from intergenerational trauma as much as anybody. So because I understand it, I am going to be understanding to other people.
Native News Online: We know that it’s just the beginning of this difficult work. Has any progress been made towards further investigation outside of the Road to Healing tour?
Secretary Haaland: The team is working on a second report right now. I can’t tell you when that will be done. But we are very grateful to have the support of Congress for an additional $7 million toward this initiative. So, as I said, I’m incredibly grateful that Congress has recognized that this issue is important to our country. We are going to put that money to good use [with the] second report right now. I can’t tell you exactly what will be in that report, but certainly, the oral history that we have been able to gain since the start of the Road to Healing tour will likely be a part of that.
Native News Online: I know you were part of the introduction of the HR 544—the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools—that is going through Congress right now. Are you happy with the current language, and where are we in that process?
Secretary Haaland: As it works its way through, I believe we testified on this issue, and they were supportive of the language, and we were supportive of the language and the way it was written. I’m grateful to my former colleagues for moving that forward, and so, we’ll just hope for the best.
Native News Online: I know you've read into Carlisle, as you were there in summer 2021 when the Rosebud were returning nine of their ancestors. Do you think the Army should follow NAGPRA specifically in repatriating the remains of ancestors buried at Carlisle? If so, can you do anything to compel them to do so?
Secretary Haaland: It was my understanding that those graves did not fall under NAGPRA, but I’m not the attorney who figures all those things out. So, of course, I just want you to know that for our part, we will be incredibly supportive of whatever it is we’re charged with doing, without delay, when it comes to those children who died while they were in school there. With respect to the children who were taken back home last summer, the Army was very supportive all along the way. So I was grateful for that. Whatever our responsibility is with respect to that, we will rise to the occasion and help in any way we possibly can.
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