When my parents made the difficult decision to leave behind everyone they knew and everything they loved to move to the United States, they did so fearfully but with courage and the fierce desire to provide a better life for their children.
When I made the decision to seek higher education at Augustana, I did so knowing that I was investing in my future.
Many of the choices that we make in our lives serve to support our best interests or future aspirations. Indeed, choice is one of humanity’s greatest assets, as it is personal and subjective, and it sets in motion what happens next.
Throughout history, though, individual choice has often been forcefully removed from those most impacted by its consequences. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the forceful removal of Native American children from their homes and placement into government-sponsored, church-run boarding schools were the most relevant choices taken away from Native Americans.
Indian boarding schools were designed to assimilate Native American children into mainstream American culture and society, and they were often operated by Christian missionary organizations.
Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and sent to these schools, where they were required to conform to European-American cultural norms and practices. Sometimes, parents were given a “choice,” under the guise of providing a better future for their children but without a clear understanding of the horrors to which they were subjecting their children — hardly a choice at all.
At the boarding schools, Native American children were often required to abandon their traditional languages and ways of life and instead speak English, adhere to Christianity and adopt mainstream American customs. They were often subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Many of these schools had high mortality rates due to the harsh living and learning conditions, and many Native American children who attended these schools experienced significant trauma as a result of their experiences.
South Dakota operated 31 boarding schools around the state, many of them on reservations. These boarding schools had a tragic influence on tribal communities. The Department of Interior’s reports on stories from boarding school survivors and their families around the nation prove the tragic history of boarding schools.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, visited the Rosebud tribe in South Dakota and heard stories from the elders. Many recalled traumatic events that still impact their lives today. Some of the stories recounted physical, mental and sexual abuse. Due to these violent abuses, some of the kids never made it home and were buried in marked or unmarked graves. When families questioned the whereabouts of their loved ones, the schools would commonly tell them their kids ran away, leaving many without closure or truth.
Additionally, despite the evidence of the trauma endured by these communities, there is barely any formal documentation of school records, names and tribes that suffered. This lack of information makes it difficult for families to locate their loved ones.
To begin to address this collective trauma, Haaland announced the creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June 2021. In September of that year, the 117th Congress introduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, which aimed to establish a formal commission to investigate human rights violations and make recommendations for further government action.
In a show of strength, tribal nations around the country are joining together to fight for their stories to be heard and for our government to hold itself accountable for its role in upholding this violent system.
Many communities of faith are beginning to acknowledge their complicity in the historic trauma of the boarding school era. However, these reconciliation efforts must extend to the federal level. Congress has a responsibility to tribal nations. Senators and representatives of the current 118th Congress can start the healing process by reintroducing and passing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act.
South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson and Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune have a responsibility to acknowledge the injustices committed against Native communities and to take action toward accountability. Johnson demonstrated leadership by co-sponsoring the House version of the bill when it was introduced in the previous Congress. Now it is time that Rounds and Thune join him in recognizing the significant impact the Truth and Healing Commission will have on tribal communities throughout the country.
As we look into our society and witness the systems that attempt to deprive us of our right to choose today, it is vital that we recognize the same racism and patriarchy that undergirded those who stole Native families and children’s right to choose. We still have the same system that took Native Americans from their homes and put them in the hands of human rights violators.
We cannot change the past, but we can support initiatives that strive to reconcile and alleviate the hardships felt by Native communities today.