Wash. Tribal Board To Study State's Boarding School History

By Crystal Owens | October 4, 2023, 10:11 PM EDT ·

Five members of Washington's tribal nations will lead an advisory committee aimed at studying how the state can address harms caused to Native Americans by the government's role in Native boarding schools, the state's attorney general says.

The committee, announced Tuesday by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, will hold public listening sessions across the state throughout the next year "to begin a two-year journey toward uncovering the full history of Indian boarding schools in Washington." The sessions will begin in January, according to the attorney general.

"These schools are not just a shameful part of our history — the trauma they caused reverberates through generations of Indigenous families," Ferguson said in a statement.

Those making up the state's Truth and Reconciliation Tribal Advisory Committee are: Edward Washines of the Yakama Nation, Tamika LaMere of the Anishinaabe, Rebecca Black of the Quinault Indian Nation, Abriel Johnny of the Tlingit and Cowichan First Nations and Diana Bob of the Lummi Nation.

Washington's Legislature, during its latest session, instructed Ferguson to convene the committee with specific qualifications for those would-be members.

Each member, the Legislature said, must be citizens of federally recognized tribes in diverse geographic areas throughout the state. They were also required to have personal, policy or specific expertise with tribal boarding school history and in "traditionally and culturally appropriate truth and healing endeavors."

"We are grateful for Washington state's leadership in not only investigating its role during the Indian boarding school era, but also its willingness to promote healing for survivors," said Deborah Parker, CEO of The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a member of The Tulalip Tribes. "We need other states to follow suit and work with tribes and Native communities to bring the truth about this dark history to light."

One of the major goals of the committee is to build on a May 2022 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior that noted more than 400 boarding schools across 37 states were part of the federal government's efforts between 1819 and 1969 to force assimilation upon Native Americans.

As part of those efforts, the schools "deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children," the report says, including giving them English names, cutting their hair, prohibiting the use of their native languages, forcing manual labor and using corporal punishment.

In total, more than 500 Indigenous children died in boarding schools run by the federal government and churches the course of those 150 years, according to the report.

Washington's lawmakers said the report identified 15 boarding schools in the state; however, it doesn't take into account all the facilities and institutions, such as asylums or orphanages, that targeted Native American children.

In August, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition released research that found 17 Native boarding schools in Washington. Two of the schools identified in that research didn't show any evidence of federal support, the coalition said.

"The Tribal Advisory Committee will build on this knowledge to study the full extent of the impacts of boarding schools and other cultural assimilation practices in Washington state," Ferguson said.

The history and practices of past boarding schools have been at the forefront of debate among state and federal lawmakers this year, following the release of the DOI's report as they seek to find methods of accounting for every facility and those who were once inhabitants.

In May, a group of bipartisan U.S. senators revived legislation that, if enacted, would help to illuminate the federal government's past efforts to erase Indigenous culture by sending Native American children to assimilation-oriented Christian boarding schools.

The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Policy Act, originally written in 2020, would create a commission to continue documenting Native boarding school history and develop recommendations for addressing the intergenerational trauma attributed to them.

Referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in June, the legislation has since stalled.

Following the release of its 2022 report on boarding schools, the DOI conducted a national "Road to Healing" tour, giving students from tribal boarding schools a chance to share their stories and providing Native communities with resources to address intergenerational trauma.

On the heels of that endeavor, the DOI announced a $4 million partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities that will expand its inquiry on Native boarding schools. As part of the partnership, the NEH will help digitize records from more than 400 boarding schools and create a permanent collection of oral histories from students who attended the schools.

--Editing by Lakshna Mehta.

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