Healing from the trauma of Indian boarding schools

by Iris Graville and Judy Meyer

For years, Phyllis Webstad, of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, avoided wearing the color orange. It brought back memories of the cruel treatment she endured at an Indian residential school in British Columbia, Canada. Now, every September 30, Webstad wears a bright orange shirt with the words “Every Child Matters” printed on the front. That day has been designated in Canada as “Orange Shirt Day” (www.orangeshirtday.org) to recognize “the harm caused to the self-esteem and wellbeing of children by the residential school system.” In the U.S., many people, including the NDN Collective (https://ndncollective.org), recognize September 30 as a National Day of Remembrance.

The Lopez Island Friends Meeting (Quakers) Indigenous Rights Action Committee learned about Indian Boarding Schools in the US from a Samish tribal member and heard about Orange Shirt Day from Webstad’s You Tube video (https://youtu.be/EuW4WbekhxY). Webstad arrived at a residential school in 1973 at the age of six. She was excited to start school wearing a new orange shirt given to her by her grandmother, but school officials took her shirt away. In the video, she explains she begged to have her shirt returned, but no one listened. It was the beginning of experiences that destroyed her self-esteem. “All I remember most is crying, being lonely, and how no one really cared about me or any of us kids. We would cry ourselves to sleep every night and no one would ever come to comfort us.”

Webstad and thousands of other First Nations children lost far more than a brightly-colored shirt when they attended Indian residential schools. They were removed from their families and culture and not allowed to speak their language. And the history of boarding schools in the U.S. is equally appalling.

In May, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a national investigative report identifying more than 400 federally-run schools for Native American children, including 15 in Washington state.

Such schools began opening in the late 1880s and continued operating until as recently as the 1960s. More than 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children were placed in the schools.

The report was the first step for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative launched by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland following revelations in 2021 of hundreds of unmarked graves at Indian residential schools in Canada. According to the report, “the U.S. Schools were designed to forcibly remove children from their families and place them with educators who suppressed the use of Native language and any learning of Native cultures and beliefs.”

Interior Secretary Haaland wrote of her own family’s experience in a June 11, 2021 opinion piece in The Washington Post:

“My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only eight years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture, and communities until they were thirteen. Many children like them endured physical abuse for speaking their tribal languages or practicing traditions that didn’t fit into what the government believed was the American ideal,” Haaland wrote. “Many never made it back home. We must learn about this history.”

An earlier response to this tragic history was the creation in 2012 of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). The nonprofit works to increase public awareness and cultivate healing for the profound trauma experienced by individuals, families, communities, and American Indian and Alaska Native Nations resulting from the Boarding School Policy of 1869. Deborah Parker, of the Tulalip Tribe, is the CEO of NABS.

One piece of U.S. legislation NABS is following is the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, introduced on September 30, 2021 (H.R. 5444 and S.2907). The purpose of this Act is to establish a Truth and Healing Commission. Parker describes the Act as long overdue. “Native people have endured nearly two centuries of boarding school policies,” she says. “The truth cannot wait any longer.”

Local tribal communities continue to experience intergenerational trauma resulting from experiences in Indian boarding schools. The Lopez Island Friends Meeting is aware that Quakers, as well as Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, were involved in running some of the schools in the U.S. The local Quakers are striving to do what they can to promote healing, and they urge people to ask their representatives in Congress to support the Truth and Healing Commission of the Indian Boarding School Policies Act.