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'It was 12 years of hell': Indian Boarding School survivors recount painful memories

SecDebHaaland / Twitter
Indian Boarding School survivor Ray Doyah reads poetry as Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland sit in the background, on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Anadarko, Okla.

Hundreds of survivors of Indian Boarding Schools gathered this weekend in a first-of-its-kind event in Anadarko, Okla. The federal government ran the boarding schools, and now they are listening. These survivors put faces to the statistics.

84-year-old Donald Neconie said that every time he spoke the Kiowa language at St. Patrick's Mission School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, his mouth was washed out with lye.

"It was 12 years of hell," said Neconie, who also attended Riverside Indian School before its current leadership that has turned the school around. He detailed beatings and said he cheered when the school tore down one of the buildings on campus.

Deborah McIntosh Sunagoowie remembered being taken from her Cherokee home and put in foster care and then in boarding school.

"They took us children away because they said our mother couldn't take care of us anymore," said Sunagoowie, talking about her brothers and sisters. "And she was court ordered to go to a mental institution."

Brought Plenty detailed being taken at the age of six to a boarding school in Pierre, South Dakota after her mother was murdered.

"They stripped me down, they cut my hair off, and they poured liquid in my hair and gave me some liquid stuff in my hand and told me to go to the showers," she said on the verge of tears.

Allison Herrera / KOSU
Johanna Scrapper and Deborah McIntosh Sunagoowie, both Cherokee citizens, survived boarding schools in Oklahoma.

"The Road to Healing" tour

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland listened to dozens of painful testimonies as part of "The Road to Healing" tour.

"I want you all to know that I am with you on this journey, and I am here to listen," said Haaland at the beginning of the listening session. "I will listen with you, I will grieve with you, I will weep, and I will feel your pain as we mourn what we have lost. Please know that we still have so much to gain."

The first stop was in Oklahoma because according to a recent report the state had the largest concentration of federally-run Indian Boarding Schools, with 76 in total. Native children were forced to go to these schools and had their Native cultures stripped from them.

Haaland was joined by Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

"As we keep investigating the federal Indian boarding school system and learning about your experiences at specific schools and the overall system — it will paint a picture, a history that records and documents simply can't do for the rest of the American people," said Newland, referring to people's testimonies.

In 2021, Haaland launched the federal boarding school initiative after the graves of hundreds of children were discovered at a residential school in Canada. The goal was to provide a full account of the policies, legacy and cost of these schools that robbed Indigenous people of their culture and their livelihoods. That was detailed in the report released in May.

But as Newland said, a report is just that — a report. Without testimony of survivors and families of survivors, the public will never know the full story of the trauma these schools wreaked on families for generations.

The department's next steps include identifying marked and unmarked burial sites and cemeteries at federally-run boarding schools and determining the total amount of funding that the federal government spent on the system.

Survivors want those answers, but they also want something to be done about it. One of the things that could be restored is language, especially for children like Sunagoowie, who were forbidden to speak it.

"I was raised with Cherokee grandparents," said Sunagoowie, who mourned the loss of her language. "They read it, spoke it and preached it and sang in it, and we couldn't do that. We weren't allowed. So, here I am — I'm a full blood Cherokee, yet I'm I can barely understand [the language]." 

Money and new programs have been pledged to help language programs across the country, but tribal leaders and people who run those programs say it's not enough. There are only a few speakers left, and the clock is ticking.

Allison Herrera / KOSU
Brought Plenty was taken and put in two boarding schools in South Dakota after her mother was murdered. She now wants to help other victims who survived boarding schools.

Dealing with the trauma

Mental health care is another priority.

Brought Plenty went to several therapists and psychiatrists to deal with the trauma from her boarding school experience. They misdiagnosed her, prescribed medication that didn't help, and even recommended shock treatment. What she really sought was someone who understood the trauma and suffering she went through as a result of being sexually and physically abused as a child.

"They label us with these things and say this and this and this is what's wrong with, you know, I can tell you what's wrong with me: They did this and this to me at the Indian boarding school," said Brought Plenty.

Mental health counselors were available for survivors during this weekend’s events. But those who spoke — some of them for the first time — say nothing, not even an apology, will ever help heal the wounds they suffered.

More investigation is being done into the U.S. boarding school system, and federal officials promise another report with more details. Meanwhile, Haaland and Newland will continue hearing from survivors in other states.

If you have an experience you would like to talk about or something that needs to be investigated surrounding the boarding schools that operated in Oklahoma, email Allison at allison@kosu.org, or call us at 855-808-5678, and we’ll connect you to her.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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