Don Coyhis, of White Bison Inc. at the Boarding School Healing Symposium.

Boarding School Apology Advanced

Carol Berry
6/13/11

In recent years, Native Americans voices have grown louder in an appeal to the U.S. government and involved churches to publicly acknowledge the harm their boarding schools have done by extending a meaningful apology to the victims of cultural genocide.

The emerging, expert-driven Boarding School Healing Coalition has issued its report from a mid-May symposium convened by the University of Colorado (CU) Law School, Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Boarding School Healing Project and University of Wyoming College of Law. The report underscores the need for such an apology.

“The time to seek justice and healing for our ancestors who suffered the boarding school experience is long overdue,” said Jill E. Tompkins, Penobscot, director and professor, CU American Indian Law Program and conference organizer. “The establishment of the Boarding School Coalition and the development of a mutual shared vision for future action are critical steps forward.”

Crafting a national strategy to achieve an apology and reparations was a fundamental goal of the conference, which plans a future focus on public education, litigation, remedial legislation, and international policy advocacy.

In addition to a formal apology for the intergenerational trauma that plagues many Indian communities, the coalition said an apology is due to all Americans for the deaths and disabling wounds suffered by four to five generations of Native children whose contributions are lost forever.

“No apology has been offered from either the government of the United States or by the religious organizations that managed the boarding schools,” the report states, and the U.S.’ endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was the last offered, and was “qualified in substantial respects,” it states.

Among the last four signatories of the Declaration—the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia—only the U.S. “has taken no tangible legal action to accept responsibility for the disastrous boarding school policy,” it states, noting the other countries’ formal apologies, truth and reconciliation commission, reparations, and victim compensation.

“An estimated 100,000 children passed through the boarding schools between 1879 and the 1960s, and as late as 1973, 60,000 American Indian children were enrolled in off-reservation schools,” the report notes. “Thousands of these children died from disease, malnutrition, loneliness and abuse” and many are reported to have been buried anonymously, some in mass graves on boarding school grounds.”

“All school children graduate knowing about slavery in the United States and its devastating effects on black people and the human toll of the Civil War,” said Don Coyhis, president of nonprofit White Bison Inc., Colorado Springs and a Coalition member, who said students should not graduate without knowing about U.S. impacts on Natives and Native culture, as well.

Legal pressure is one avenue suggested in the coalition report to assist the effort toward a political/public policy solution, including the enforcement of protections from the Indian Peace Commission of 1867-68, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and other treaties, litigation in various courts, or intervention by international agencies under international law.

Healing could be furthered through many ways, possibly including a Council of Cultural Knowledge, which “could play an important role in identifying the culturally relevant ceremonies that would be crucial for healing,” and through cultural revitalization: “We want to get our language back to all of our people,” the report notes. “We don’t want to rely solely on the language of the colonizers. We believe we can be equally competent in both languages; be bilingual.”

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