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AUSTRALIA ROAD TO HEALING TOUR: “I will never, ever forgive this school for what they did to me. I still feel that pain.”

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#AceNewsDesk – Road to Healing tour sheds light on suffering of survivors of Native American boarding schools

“I will never, ever forgive this school for what they did to me. I still feel that pain.”

These were the words of 84-year-old Donald Neconie, a former US Marine and member of the Kiowa Tribe, as he spoke at the first event in the “Road to Healing” tour that began on Saturday at the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklohoma.

Mr Neconie and other native American tribal elders — all former students at the government-backed “Indian” boarding school — testified about the hardships they endured at Riverside, including beatings, whippings, sexual assaults, humiliation and painful nicknames.

They came from different states and different tribes, but they shared the common experience of having attended a school that was designed to strip Indigenous people of their cultural identities.

As the elders spoke, US Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland — herself a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history — listened quietly.

“I’m here to listen. I will listen with you, I will grieve with you, I will believe you and I will feel your pain,” Ms Haaland said.

Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing lead a ceremony in a school gymnasium.
The “Road to Healing” tour will give survivors of Native American boarding schools a chance to speak of the widespread abuses committed at those institutions.(AP: Sue Ogrocki)none

Riverside was Ms Haaland’s first stop in the nationwide tour that will give First Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiian survivors of federal Indian boarding school policies a platform to share their painful experiences.

Mr Neconie, who still lives in Anadarko, recalled being beaten if he cried or spoke his native Kiowa language when he attended Riverside in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“Every time I tried to talk Kiowa, they put lye in my mouth,” he said.

“It was 12 years of hell.”

The ingestion of lye, a metal hydroxide used for cleaning and curing foods, causes “rapid burns of the mouth, tongue and pharynx”, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

A cabinet secretary with ‘shared trauma’

US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks from a podium.
Ms Haaland will meet with survivors and their descendants across the US to hear their stories.(AP: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)none

Ms Haaland’s agency recently released a report that identified more than 400 schools that were centres of forced assimilation from the early 1800s through to the 1970s, with the stated goal of wiping out Native American culture.

The report said students, often separated from their families by the age of four or five, endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse”.

More than 500 children died at such schools, but that number is expected to reach into the tens of thousands as more research is done.

The schools carried out a “christianisation” policy, removing indigenous cultural signifiers by cutting the children’s hair, having them wear American-style uniforms, forbidding them from speaking their indigenous languages, and replacing their tribal names with English names.

“Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know,” Ms Haaland said at the start of the event, which attracted Native Americans from throughout the region.

“Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry the trauma in our hearts.

“My ancestors endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead.

“This is the first time in history that a cabinet secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma.”

Young boys eat at a Native American boarding school dining hall.
Young boys eating at a Native American boarding school dining hall in an unknown location.(Wikipedia: Minnesota Historical Society)none

Riverside’s dark history

Riverside Indian School, which opened in 1871, still operates today but with a vastly different mission.

These days, Riverside offers specialised academic programs as well as courses on cultural topics such as bead-working, shawl-making and an introduction to tribal art, foods and games.

A woman walks into the Riverside Indian School Gymnasium.
Today, Riverside school’s administration, staff and faculty are mostly Native American.(AP: Sue Ogrocki)none

Currently operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, it has nearly 800 students from more than 75 tribes across the country, and the school’s administration, staff and faculty are mostly Native American.

But Riverside also has a dark history of mistreating the thousands of Native American students who were forced from their homes to attend it.

An elderly lady wearing glasses and a beaded necklace speaks while sitting a wheelchair.
Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, said older Kiowa women who served as house mothers in the dormitories treated her with kindness.(AP: Sue Ogrocki)none

Dorothy WhiteHorse, 89, a Kiowa who attended Riverside in the 1940s, spoke of the time she said three young boys ran away from the home and got caught in a snowstorm.

She said all three froze to death.

“I think we need a memorial for those boys,” she said.

But Ms WhiteHorse said she did have some happy memories.

She recalled learning to dance the jitterbug in the school’s gymnasium and learning to speak English for the first time.

She also recalled older Kiowa women who served as house mothers in the dormitories who let her speak her native language and treated her with kindness.

“I was helped,” WhiteHorse said. “I’m one of the happy ones.”

Brought Plenty, a Standing Rock Sioux who lives in Dallas, shared no such happy memories of her childhood in Indian boarding schools in South Dakota.

She recalled being forced to whip other girls with wet towels and being punished when she didn’t.

“What they did to us makes you feel so inferior,” she said.

“You never get past this. You never forget it.”

Six students posed in a room at a Native American boarding school.
Children were often separated from their families by the age of four or five and endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse”.(Wikipedia: Minnesota Historical Society)none

‘Whitewashing’ brutality

Under a similar policy in Australia, Indigenous and part-Indigenous children were taken from their families and fostered by non-Indigenous families or institutions from around 1905 and 1967.

They are known today as the stolen generation.

Conditions at former Indian boarding schools gained global attention last year when tribal leaders in Canada announced the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops residential school for indigenous children, as such institutions are known in Canada.

Unlike the United States, Canada carried out a full investigation into its schools via a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The US government has never acknowledged how many children attended such schools or how many children died or went missing from them.

The US Department of the Interior’s historic investigation could change that as it sheds light on a raw subject for Native Americans which has until recently received little national attention.

The Interior Department’s report includes a list of the boarding schools in what were states or territories that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and received support from the federal government.

Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona, which had 47, and New Mexico, which had 43. All three states still have significant Native American populations.

Lawrence SpottedBird, the newly elected chairman of the Kiowa tribe, said he’s a military veteran and feels as American as anyone. But he said it’s far overdue that the country stops “whitewashing the brutal history” of the boarding school system.

“America prides itself on being an advocate of democracy and human rights around the world but was itself one of the worst violators of human rights when it comes to Native Americans,” he said.

“They need to be honest about this history so they can heal with us.”

Children at school.
More than 500 children died at such schools, but that number is expected to reach into the tens of thousands as more research is done.(Supplied: Genoa Historical Museum and the Genoa US Indian School Foundation)none

ABC NEWS

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