By The Herald Editorial Board
In her work for both the Tulalip Tribes and a national healing coalition investigating the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States, Deborah Parker has listened to the stories of elders who were separated from their families as children and often sent far from home to the residential institutions.
“The stories are so abundant that those of us working on the boarding school issue hear stories daily, stories in secret, in the dark, in the corners,” Parker said. The stories start with, “Yeah, that happened to my grandmother or my grandfather.”
One story shared between a grandfather and grandson, Parker said in a recent interview, involved the grandparent when he was 9 years old and had been sent to the school on the Tulalip reservation, run by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church, where thousands of Indigenous children from around the state and region had been sent over the decades.
As told to Parker, the boy learned that his 11-year-old brother, also at the Tulalip school, had been killed by someone on the school’s staff, “because they didn’t want him to speak his language, or sing a song.”
The boy sneaked out of the school and left Tulalip, Parker said, and walked home along the shoreline until he reached his tribal home on Lummi Island in Whatcom County.
When the grandson tells this story, Parker said, “he has this pain he doesn’t quite understand. He knows that when many of the children did return, they didn’t return whole.”
And many did not return at all.
The history of Indian boarding schools has received renewed attention in recent months following the discovery of unmarked graves at similar schools in Canada, which imported the model from the United States. The graves of more than 1,300 First Nations children were recovered at former school sites earlier this year, prompting investigations, official acknowledgements from the Canadian government and efforts to return remains to tribal homes.
At the same time, following her appointment earlier this year as Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to address the intergenerational impact of the schools and shed light on their traumas that remain from the more than 365 boarding schools throughout the United States that were used to divorce children from their tribal lives and assimilate them into American culture, following the Civil War era and the Indian Wars through the mid-20th century.
By 1926, nearly 83 percent of all Indian school-age children had been separated from their families and sent to the schools, where they spent half the day at work and chores and half they day in the classroom; for the boys, agricultural and industrial skills; for the girls, cooking, sewing and household work. Throughout, the intention was assimilation, working to — as a founder of the school model, Civil War veteran William Henry Platt, said — “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Students were forbidden to speak their tribal language or sing tribal songs they had learned or practice tribal beliefs. The punishment was often brutal.
“The thought of it is explosive in the mind. Incomprehensible,” Parker said. “It makes this work incredible difficult, it makes this work necessary, it makes it heartfelt; working on behalf of children who were beaten, slapped and strangled.”
Students also were often victims of physical and sexual abuse.
The assimilation had larger purposes, including preparing workers for industries, but also often permanently separating young Indians from families and tribes, and removing them from the land that had belonged to them, leaving it to be acquired by others.
“Boarding schools were genocide,” wrote Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin in a press release shortly after the news from Canada was announced. The schools “were a state-sanctioned attempt to eradicate us from America. Throughout Canada and the United States, this unacknowledged history is finally coming to light.”
Promised education in the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, the tribes signing on to the treaty instead saw that pledge “twisted into a weapon designed to strip us of our dignity, our families, our life ways. All of the things that made us unconquerable people,” Gobin wrote.
Parker, whose heritage includes Coast Salish and Yaqui Apache is a former Tulalip vice-chairman and currently the director of policy and advocacy for the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition.
Parker has been working on boarding schools issues for some 20 years, starting her work in Canada. She now senses new urgency to confront the schools’ history and legacy, in part because of Haaland’s work and the initiative she is leading.
Recently, Parker met with Haaland and worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., to reintroduce legislation that Haaland, then a congresswoman, and Warren introduced in 2020 to create a truth and healing commission on boarding schools.
The intent of the legislation is to collect records from churches, hospitals and other archives to document what happened to students, locate graves and repatriate remains to tribes and to account for a history of genocide.
Parker said she has confidence that Haaland can help tribes and the nation find resolution.
“She’s where she needs to be, because this is the time for truth and healing,” she said.
There is work ongoing to recover lives, stories, culture and language.
One heartening example are the classes in the Coast Salish Lushootseed language — the language once forbidden at Tulalip — that are now taught to tribal and other students in Marysville School District schools and the tribe’s own Lushootseed Language Department, as detailed in a 2019 Herald story by Stephanie Davey.
Among those interviewed for that story was Chelsea Craig, whose grandmother, after leaving the Tulalip school, believed it was wrong to speak her own language until the day she died. Craig, who has worked with Marysville schools for 20 years, saw the language classes as healing. At the time of the story, Craig’s son was learning Lushootseed.
“The work that is happening now is interrupting the system of oppression for our people,” Craig told The Herald. “It’s beyond offering a class. It’s healing what was stolen from my family.”
A full accounting of boarding schools in both countries, and an acknowledgement of their continuing harms is necessary. It’s an acknowledge as necessary for the boarding schools as it is for the legacies of slavery, of Japanese internment and other examples of cultural and racial exclusion and oppression.
What happened, Parker said, whether it’s slavery or boarding schools, “is part of a disgraceful past, but it’s one we can learn from. We can learn to forgive. We can learn to find spaces where we allow people to heal.”
But for that to happen, the past cannot be ignored.
“We can’t continue until we pause to acknowledge what we have done to others,” she said.
Thursday, Sept. 30, is a National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and Canada. Learn more at boardingschoolhealing.org.