In an effort to address the United States’ Indian Boarding School era, the Lakota People’s Law Project has launched a campaign to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
This Congressional committee would investigate the impacts and ongoing effects of the Indian Boarding School Policy, while working toward healing and addressing the myriad issues Indian country faces today.
The Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) began its outreach campaign to tribes across the country after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe signed on to their resolution letter calling for a TRC on June 8th. LPLP’s goal is to have as many tribes as possible sign on as a way of showing Congress that it’s time to act.
Standing Rock District Representative Robert Taken Alive says a TRC will help heal tribal members and families that have been devastated by the federal boarding school policy.
“We want to make sure that we stand with the other tribes that have been affected by this era,” says Taken Alive.
The 1869 “Peace Policy,” known as the Indian Boarding School Policy, funded boarding schools focused on assimilating and “civilizing” American Indian children—the intent, said Richard Pratt, the founder of the notorious Carlisle school, was to “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
More than 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and distributed among the 460 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) operated schools by 1960. Children as young as five years old were punished for speaking their language and banned from engaging in traditional practices.
“They were brutalized simply for existing,” says Chase Iron Eyes, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member and attorney for LPLP. He adds that these children faced oppressive discipline and corporal punishment.
“They made our children ashamed of who they are,” says Iron Eyes, who spearheaded the call for TRC. “Nearly every challenge we face today is traceable to this intergenerational trauma.”
While these schools no longer exist, Iron Eyes says the policy resulted in the systemic destruction of Native American cultures and communities.
Even the BIA admitted in 2000 that their policies “made Indian people ashamed of who they were,” and that the BIA “committed these acts [meant ‘to destroy all things Indian’] against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.”
Kevin Gover, the former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs who made these statements on behalf of the BIA, declared that “a healing process is crucial to letting go of the past and laying the groundwork for the future.”
Iron Eyes says this healing process is “long overdue,” and that the most effective way to achieve it is through a TRC.
More than 30 countries have established TRCs, which are regarded as the universally-adopted mechanism for providing redress for harms caused to a people and culture by government policies, like racially-segregated boarding schools.
Canada established a TRC in 2008 to address the damages caused to its First Nations population through its boarding school policy, which was directly modeled after the United States’ policy. Canada’s final report, released December 2015, decried the policy as a form of cultural genocide.
The United Nations defines cultural genocide as “forcibly transferring children of one group to another group.” Iron Eyes says it’s “undoubtedly clear” that cultural genocide took place through these schools.
“The trauma suffered has gone unrecognized and unresolved, and it has been passed down to subsequent generations, resulting in the undermining and devastation of Native American individuals, families and communities,” says Iron Eyes.
Assimilation persists today in a more subtle form, as Native American children are being removed from their families at an alarming rate by state departments of social services; they are dramatically overrepresented in state foster care and adoption systems throughout the country. In South Dakota, for example, more than 700 Native American children per year are placed in foster care, representing more than half the state’s foster care population, though they constitute only 13.8 percent of the state’s child population.
LPLP’s resolution letter, which is being shared with tribes across the country, calls for the TRC to accomplish four key tasks.
First, the TRC will take testimony from boarding school survivors, identifying how their experience impacts their lives, so that their stories will not be forgotten as part of U.S. history. Second, it will release a comprehensive national study focused on the impacts and ongoing effects of the boarding school policy. Third, it will provide recommendations to Congress for how to begin an official process of healing. Lastly, the TRC will make recommendations to Congress for how to move toward having Child and Family Service Programs be run by Tribal Nations for Tribal Nations.