Movement to investigate residential school legacy gathers momentum in North Dakota

At an event sponsored by the Five Tribes of North Dakota in mid-August at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, members of the tribe gathered to commemorate the children who died in residential schools.

In Fargo, activists are organizing a three-day residential school-focused commemorative event for the end of September, which will culminate on the last day of the month with a remembrance walk, mirroring a similar Canadian day of reconciliation established in 2013.

And after coming together for a meeting of the United Tribes of North Dakota, the leaders of the state’s five tribal governments agreed to bring the resolutions back to their tribal councils, with the aim of forcing the federal government to fiscal power in its recently announced budget. commission to investigate residential school deaths across the country.

In June, Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the country’s first Native American cabinet member, unveiled the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative, a one-of-a-kind effort to examine the role of government in attempting to erase indigenous cultures through state sponsored initiatives. education.

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The announcement follows the discovery this summer of more than 900 anonymous graves at two First Nations residential schools in Canada.

Shane Balkowitsch then prepares-Rep.  Debra Haaland, DN.M., for a photograph in 2019. Haaland, now Home Secretary, unveiled the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative in June.  Forum archive photo

Shane Balkowitsch then prepares-Rep. Debra Haaland, DN.M., for a photograph in 2019. Haaland, now Home Secretary, unveiled the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative in June. Forum archive photo

“I know this will be a hot topic for, you know, a month,” said Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa chairman Jamie Azure, one of the tribal leaders who participated in the United Tribes resolution.

At this point, Azure said, the most important step they can take is to continue to spread the word.

“Often these hot topics start to drop because things are not explained and dialogue does not continue,” he said. “People need to understand the big picture. ”

From the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and into the 20th century, Indigenous children across the United States were shipped from their families and tribal communities to residential schools, many to austere former military complexes. As an explicit goal, these schools aimed to eliminate the native culture of the students and assimilate them into white America.

Many institutions have complied with a refrain from the founder of one of the first residential schools, former Civil War general Richard H. Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man”.

“We could do better as humans, you know? Said Tracey Wilkie, a Fargo activist and member of the Turtle Mountain Tribe. “I think we are coming out of the greatest genocide the world has ever seen. It is recognized. People are starting to pay attention.

“It really builds on the work that many people have already been doing for decades,” said Democratic Representative for Fargo, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation member Ruth Buffalo. “You will hear different people say, ‘This is what we tried to tell people.'”

Ruth Buffalo celebrates after being sworn in on December 3, 2018 to serve in the North Dakota House of Representatives.  Contribution: Lea Black Photography

Ruth Buffalo celebrates after being sworn in on December 3, 2018 to serve in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Contribution: Lea Black Photography

Buffalo, who is also recently appointed chairman of the board of directors of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said she learned more about her own family’s experience in residential schools into adulthood. Although she grew up listening to her mother’s residential school stories, it wasn’t until this winter that she learned that both of her grandparents were survivors of institutions as well.

The task of finding out what happened in these schools – and exactly how many children were lost there – is enormous. In recent years, some academics and researchers have devoted themselves to this story. But, for the vast majority of schools, scholarships are slim, if not nonexistent. Record keeping in residential schools tended to be of poor quality, and stories of what happened inside survive mainly on the memories of the ancient Native Americans who frequented them.

Some North Dakota tribes, like the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, are already finding that many of the same bureaucratic barriers that can hamper resources on their reserves also pose significant challenges to their research on boarding schools.

The tribe recently identified that one of its members, a girl named Mary Charboneu, died at the Indian School in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1925. Official documents from the state of South Dakota have not recorded the cause of his death.

“We’ve just erased a lot of our history,” said Azure, the tribe’s chairman. “His hard to really put into words – really hard to grasp how big it really is and how big it will become. “

In a meeting this month between the Turtle Mountain Tribal Council and the North Dakota Legislature’s Tribal-State Relations Committee, Azure and tribal lawyer Alysia LaCounte told lawmakers that they thought there were unmarked graves at the North Dakota boarding school sites.

In particular, they looked to Fort Totten, the military post established in 1867 that also served decades as a boarding school for Native American children, many of them on Turtle Mountain.

But LaCounte told state leaders that even starting to investigate this site poses significant bureaucratic hurdles.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was established as a military outpost in 1867, but then served as a residential school for Native American children for several decades.  Forum archives.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was established as a military outpost in 1867, but then served as a residential school for Native American children for several decades. Forum archives.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, is also a state historic site, meaning the tribe will have to come under state jurisdiction to investigate and recover the remains of all of the tribe members who are buried there. LaCounte expressed hope to lawmakers that the state will welcome them and offer support in efforts to probe the location.

And even within Turtle Mountain, resources are limited. The Chippewa Band government currently does not have a Tribal Historic Preserver.

Even after holding that position, LaCounte said, delving into the lost history of tribal members who died in boarding schools will be much more than a job for one person.

Azure also pointed out that when it comes to anonymous graves, “we’re talking about the worst-case scenario.”

Those who survived were nevertheless subjected to difficult conditions and a systematic dismantling of their cultural identities.

The last names have been changed.

Indigenous languages ​​have been deleted.

Azure said her 92-year-old grandmother, who attended two boarding schools, has three different recorded birthdays: she was assigned a date of birth to match when she arrived at each new school.

As tribes like Turtle Mountain rushed to start local investigations into boarding school losses, Buffalo noted that preferences about how to proceed may differ from community to community and from tribe to tribe to. the other. Measures to investigate lost burial sites, she stressed, must come from below.

“It can’t be a top-down approach in this type of work,” said Buffalo, who added that in addition to the elements of residential school board research and outreach, steps to promote healing around an issue which has contributed to generations of trauma within Indigenous communities will be equally important.

“It really has to be treated with special care. It really has to come from a place of prayer,” she said.

While miles of opaque, buried paperwork and historical documents hang over these missions, Azure said the tribes will not let go of their newfound momentum to bring members home and find out what happened at these schools, ” even if it takes the next 20 years. “

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or check out the trauma resources provided by the National Native American Healing Coalition.

Readers can contact Forum reporter Adam Willis, a member of the Report for America body, at [email protected]


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