Thursday, Sept. 23, marked the beginning of activities held by the American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Center in recognition of American Indian Heritage Day. The theme of this year’s events encouraged education and action in regards to the centuries long history of Native child abductions, forced ethnic erasure, abuse and murder, most notably seen in Indian Boarding Schools. MSU alumni Nicholas Ross-Dick, program leader of American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success and lead planner of this year’s American Indian Heritage Day explained the choice to focus this year’s theme on the history of Native children in boarding schools.
“Given childrens remains being uncovered at boarding schools and boarding school cemeteries, over the summer there were hundreds of (Native) children being found in the different provinces in Canada, and then knowing that there were around 330 boarding schools in the United States... what would that process feel and look like for communities who had to go through that?”
The activities began with a screening of “Home from School: The Children of Carlisle,” a documentary focusing on the efforts by the Northern Arapaho tribe to retrieve the human remains of three Northern Arapaho children from the cemetery at the previous Native American Boarding School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Before and after the screening, Jordan Dresser, associate producer of the film and elected chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe gave a short speech about the difficulties behind the camera while filming on an active Military base, as well as bureaucratic efforts by the military to stall their repatriation efforts. Nonetheless, Dresser and the other Northern Arapaho members brought back all three children. Dresser and some of his colleagues were not new to reclaiming Native human remains - Dresser has worked for the past few years on the repatriation efforts of Northern Arapaho artifacts back to the Wind River Reservation from Connecticut, Washington D.C. and non-Native institutions in Wyoming.
After the screening, there were a few moments before the lights were turned back on. The entire room was silent and not one person moved. No one seemed to know what to do with themselves. Dresser spoke the following day about that introspective moment as a time that “everyone could feel and absorb the weight of the topic.” After the lights were turned on, a few questions were asked to Dresser, and a few were asked between choked up tears.
The following day, a panel discussion titled “A Deeper Perspective into the Gravity of Finding Indigenous Children,” was held at 10:15 a.m. The panelists inlcuded Dresser alongside MSU doctoral candidate and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe Marsha Small, who specializes in using advanced geographic technology to find and map Native cemeteries and sacred places. She applies her work specifically in boarding school locations. Ann Douglas, Ph.D., a member of the Blackfeet tribe, as well as a psychologist, Eduardo Duran, who specifically works with Native people around northwestern Montana also attended the discussion as a panelist.
Prompted by a question regarding intergenerational trauma and its relation to boarding schools, Douglas answered, “I work with Native people to help move past these traumas that they had to deal with at boarding schools and that are still impacting the youth today. The college students now do not have to go to boarding schools, but they are definitely being impacted.”
Dresser added, “As the chairman of the tribe, I see it everyday in the things that we go through. We cope with it in different ways, some of us try to deal with it in a positive way, some turn to drugs and alcohol. You have a whole generation of grandmas and grandpas who have learned not to say anything. I tell people, just ask them if they are okay. One of the toughest choices someone can make is using their voice, it's a tough thing [to talk about]. When you talk about it, you relive that trauma again. At the end of the day, the tribes can always help.”
Small concurred with Dresser, “We are asked how has [Indian Boarding Schools] affected us? Well look around at the social, political and economic disparities in America today. It's that thumb of oppression.”
Following the panel, supporters gathered in front of the future site of American Indian Hall in preparation for “A Prayer Walk for the Children.” Before the walk began, Small, Dresser and Ross-Dick gave short speeches, as well as Walter Fleming, Ph.D., Director of the Native American Studies Department, who spoke about his own family’s experience at the Haskell Institute boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas.
The walk was led by eight students who held the flags of Séliš, QÍispé, Ktunaxa-Ksanka ( Flathead Nation), Apsáalooke (the Crow Tribe), Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda (Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes),Tsetsêhesêstâhase- So’taa’eo’o (Northern Cheyenne Tribe), A ‘aninin and Nakoda (Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes), Amskapi - Pikuni (Blackfeet Tribe), Chippewa and Métis (Little Shell Chippewa Tribe), Ojibwe and Ne-hi-yah-w (Chippewa and Cree Tribe).
About 60-70 supporters attended the walk, which is around the number Ross-Dick was “hoping for,” due to what he noticed as “a growing enthusiasm and excitement in students” to attend and assist in events held by Native organizations. Similarly, the enrollment of the Native student body hit a record high this year at 811 students, coinciding with the grand opening of the American Indian Hall on Saturday, Oct. 16.
Courtesy of the Council of American Indian Programs (CAIP), here’s a compiled list of action strategies, as well as boarding-school trauma resources.
The American Indian Boarding school survivor hotline is available at 1(800)-721-0066. If you are in the U.S, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition as well as The Native American Rights Fund are groups that work with boarding school survivors. Indian Residential School Survivors Society, The Legacy of Hope foundation and Grandmother’s Voice are all similar resources for survivors in Canada. CAIP recommends educating yourself by investigating your state’s history with boarding schools. If you are looking for extensive research and stories about the boarding school experience, such books as “Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940” by Brenda Child, “Pipestone: My life in an Indian Boarding School” by Adam Fortunate Eagle and “The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe”by Denise Lajimodiere are prominent pieces of literature on the subject. The main point of action that CAIP instructs everyone to take part in is contacting local representatives and urging them to fund and support efforts to help repatriate and locate the remains of the thousands of Native children that were sent to Indian Boarding Schools and were never able to return home.