- By Levi Rickert
OPINION. As the first Native American to ever serve as Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) has a deep understanding of the realities and ongoing ramifications of our Indigenous history within the context of American history.
As a former US representative, Haaland also understands the importance of timing and public opinion when it comes to addressing important issues, making policy and making meaningful change.
This was evident in June, just three weeks after the discovery of 215 graves of Native children at a residential boarding school in British Columbia. Speaking at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference, Haaland announced the establishment of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate and shed light on this dark era of cultural genocide.
It is hard to imagine a non-Native Interior secretary acting so decisively in rapid fashion. But Haaland had an unfortunate truth and deep understanding on her side.
“I am a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home,” Haaland wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
Six months before being sworn in as the Interior Secretary, then Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) had introduced legislation along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States and sets forth its powers, duties, and membership.
“Native people are resilient and strong, but the painful and traumatic history of genocide and forced assimilation by the federal government lives on in our communities, and our people have never been able to fully heal. I know not many people are aware of the history of Indian boarding schools, and I know it's not taught in schools -- but our country must do better to acknowledge our real history and push for truth and reconciliation,” Haaland said when the legislation was introduced.
On the same day it was introduced, the legislation was moved to a Congressional committee, where it quickly went dead on arrival.
Then last Thursday, Sept. 30, on a day when Indigenous peoples across North America commemorated multiple generations of stolen children, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act was reintroduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the Senate, with a House version of the bill introduced by the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK).
This bill would establish a formal commission to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government's Indian Boarding School policies. This includes attempts to terminate Native cultures, religions, and languages; assimilation practices; and human rights violations. The commission would also develop recommendations for Congress to aid in healing of the historical and intergenerational trauma passed down in Native families and communities. It would also provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations.
Reaction from national American Indian organizations was positive and in full support of the legislation.
The National Congress of American Indians issued a statement on Friday giving its support: “The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act would provide an important avenue for an investigation about the losses that occurred through the Indian Boarding School Policies and the lasting consequences of the violence of this attempted genocide,” Juana Majel Dixon, NCAI Board Secretary and Traditional Councilwoman of the Pauma Band of Mission Indians said.
“Only through a formal investigation which includes meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations and significant input from survivors and their descendants, can the U.S. begin to reconcile with the past and can tribal communities begin to move toward healing from the egregious abuses which occurred,” Dixon concluded.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), based in Minneapolis, offered its endorsement of the legislation in a statement.
“We are in a moment in history where the wound of unresolved grief from Indian boarding schools is being ripped wide open. The truth is being unearthed and yet so much more is still unknown,” NABS CEO Christine Diindiisi McCleave (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) said in the statement.
Of course, these two national organizations — and many others — had fully endorsed last year’s Indian boarding school bill when Haaland first introduced it, only to see it go DOA in committee a short time later.
But this time, things feel different.
Since the Kamloops discovery, there has been heightened awareness of Indian Boarding Schools and the role they played in the assimilation and cultural genocide of Native people in North America for 150 years. That awareness has sparked extensive media coverage, political dialogue, new levels of tribal engagement and Haaland’s own establishment of the boarding school initiative. Many believe it is the beginning of long-overdue reckoning and a first step toward healing for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
As Secretary Haaland did in establishing the boarding school initiative, Congress should act quickly and decisively to pass the newly reintroduced Boarding School legislation as part of the federal government’s trust responsibility to our tribal nations. This must happen now.
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