Discovering the history of the boarding school is a monumental task
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico
They sat in a dust-covered box that had been hidden, untouched, for years: black-and-white photographs of Apache students who were among the first sent to a New Mexico boarding school funded by parishioners from the east coast and literature fans.
The first showed the girls bundled up in blankets with moccasins on their feet. The next one, taken a few weeks later, was dramatically different, with the kids posing in checkered uniforms, lace-up boots and wide-brimmed straw hats.
Assistant history professor Larry Larrichio said he came across the 1885 photos while researching a military outpost and immediately recognized their importance.
The images depicted the systematic attempt by the US government, religious organizations and other groups to assimilate indigenous youth into white society by removing them from their homes and sending them to residential school. The effort spanned more than a century and is now at the center of what will be a massive undertaking by the U.S. government as it seeks to uncover the troubled legacy of the country’s policies relating to residential schools, where reports of physical and sexual abuse were widespread.
“When I took out this photo, I had tears in my eyes. I looked at the faces of these beautiful Apache girls in their native attire, then at those ugly American hats, ”said Larrichio, associate researcher at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. “It just hit me in the butt.”
The US Department of the Interior has begun combing through the files in hopes of identifying former residential schools and the names and tribes of students. The project will also attempt to determine how many children perished while attending these schools and were buried in anonymous graves.
As part of an effort that began years earlier, the exhumed remains of nine Native American children who died more than a century ago while attending a government school in Pennsylvania were turned over to relatives during a ceremony Wednesday so that they can be returned to Rosebud. Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota.
Home Secretary Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member and the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency, has promised a full review while acknowledging it would be a painful and difficult process.
Larrichio’s discovery hints at the immensity of the challenge, as each new information leads to another path that must be investigated.
While some documents are held by the agency and the National Archives, most are scattered across jurisdictions – from the bowels of university archives, like those found by Larrichio, to government offices, to church archives, to museums and collections. personal.
Not to mention the documents that have been lost or destroyed over the years.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has been working to collect information about schools for almost a decade. With the help of grants and the work of independent researchers across the country, the Minnesota-based group has identified nearly 370 schools and estimates that hundreds of thousands of Native American children passed through them between 1869 and the 1960s.
“This is going to be a monumental task, and the initiative that has been launched by the Interior is excellent, but it is a short timeframe and we will need a more thorough investigation,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of group and citizen of Turtle Mountain. Ojibwe Nation.
The coalition knows firsthand how difficult it will be to uncover the truth. Years ago, the group filed public record requests with the federal government for information about schools. The government had no answers, said Diindiisi McCleave.
Of the schools identified by the group so far, she said records had only been found for 40% of them. We do not know where the others are.
What we know from research and family accounts is that there were children who never returned home.
As the Home Office takes a formal first step to learning more about the story, Diindiisi McCleave and others are renewing their efforts to have a federal commission established in the United States, much like the one created in the United States. Canada, where the remains of over 1,000 children have been found in residential schools in recent weeks.
In the United States, the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and other laws and policies were enacted to establish and support residential schools across the country. For over 150 years, Indigenous children have been removed from their communities and placed in assimilationist residential schools.
The discoveries in Canada and the renewed spotlight in the United States aroused strong emotions among tribal communities, including grief, anger, reflection and a deep desire for healing.
Haaland, Diindiisi McCleave, and New Mexico Indian Secretary Lynn Trujillo all told stories about sending their grandparents to boarding schools. They evoke the intergenerational trauma triggered by the experience and the effects that have manifested themselves on the younger generations seeking to preserve their language and their cultural practices, prohibited in boarding schools.
For some families, the boarding school experience was a forbidden topic, one that should never be discussed.
For others, the recent attention has sparked new conversations. Trujillo recounted that her grandmother was taken away when she was 6, and told stories that she was always so hungry and so cold.
Trujillo said that when her grandmother came home, unlike other children, that experience shaped who she was.
“Our communities and indigenous peoples have known about these atrocities for a very long time, but being able to highlight and talk about them – painful as they are – is part of this healing process,” said Trujillo, member of Sandia Pueblo. , which focused on bringing Indigenous youth together to highlight the need for more mental health resources and educational opportunities.
For Diindiisi McCleave, moving forward with the healing will require more research, data and understanding.
“Much of the work begins with the truth, and that includes not only the truth from the federal government in this case and the churches that ran the schools, but also hearing the truth from the perspective of those who lived it,” by listening to the testimonies of survivors and descendants and understanding the full scope and impact of these experiences, ”she said.
Experts say the list of known boarding schools – and burial sites – will only grow longer as more field research sheds light on schools that would otherwise have been lost to history.
Some researchers have already spent years collecting archives, old newspaper articles and oral histories to find and identify lost children. Others have looked for properties using ground penetrating radar. Some state agencies that focus on indigenous affairs are considering launching surveys of well-known schools.
The Home Office said it was working on ways to “create a safe space,” such as a hotline or a special website where people can share information about schools and search for resources.
In New Mexico, the Ramona Industrial School for Indian Girls opened in the mid-1880s and was attended primarily by Apache students, many of whom had parents who were being held captive by the US military at Fort Union, about 100 miles away. .
Not far from the historic Santa Fe plaza, the school was founded by Horatio Ladd, a pastor of the congregation who contracted with the military to send native students there. The effort was supported by parishioners and admirers of author and activist Helen Hunt Jackson through fundraising newsletters and postcards.
Larrichio was working on a project for the National Park Service years ago when he came across brochures and other school-related materials. It was a months-long effort that involved browsing through hundreds of archival collections at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.
With only brief references in books on other topics, the school is an example of the hard work facing the Home Office as it embarks on its investigation. As Larrichio shares the documents he discovered with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, he said that “this is the tip of the iceberg” and there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Much of this information is probably buried – literally buried in relation to this collection that I have discovered,” he said. “How many more stories are buried and how many have been deliberately destroyed? I think it will be very difficult to have a comprehensive understanding of the impact of this.