STEAM Initiative

Movement to investigate legacy of Native American boarding schools picks up steam in North Dakota

In an event sponsored by the five North Dakota tribes in mid-August at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, tribal members gathered to commemorate the children who died in boarding schools.

In Fargo, activists are organizing a three-day boarding school-focused commemorative event for the end of September, which will culminate on the last day of the month with a remembrance walk, mirroring a similar Canadian day of reconciliation established in 2013.

And after convening for a meeting of the United Tribes of North Dakota, leaders from all five of tribal governments in the state agreed to take resolutions back to their tribal councils, with the aim of compelling the federal government to put fiscal muscle into its recently announced commission to investigate boarding school deaths all over the country.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the country’s first Native American cabinet member, unveiled the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a first-of-its kind effort to review the government’s role in the attempted erasure of Indigenous cultures through state-sponsored education.

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The announcement followed the discovery this summer of more than 900 unmarked graves at two First Nations residential schools in Canada.

Shane Balkowitsch prepares then-Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., for a photograph in 2019. Haaland, now Secretary of the Interior, unveiled the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June.
Forum file photo

Shane Balkowitsch prepares then-Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., for a photograph in 2019. Haaland, now Secretary of the Interior, unveiled the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June.
Forum file photo

“I know it’s going to be a hot topic for, you know, a month,” said Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Chairman Jamie Azure, one of the tribal leaders who participated in the United Tribes resolution.

At this point, Azure said, the most important step they can take is to keep spreading the word.

“A lot of times, those hot topics start falling off because things aren’t explained and the dialogue isn’t kept going,” he said. “People have to understand the big picture.”

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and lasting well into the 20th century, Indigenous children from all over the United States were shipped away from their families and tribal communities to boarding schools, many of them in austere former military complexes. As an explicit goal, these schools aimed to drum Indigenous culture out of the students and assimilate them into white America.

Many institutions abided by a refrain of the founder of one early boarding school, former Civil War general Richard H. Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

“We could do better as humans, you know?” said Tracey Wilkie, a Fargo activist and Turtle Mountain tribe member. “I think we’re coming out of the biggest genocide the world has ever seen. It’s being acknowledged. People are starting to pay attention.”

“It’s really building off of the work that many people have been already doing for decades,” said Fargo Democrat Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. “You’ll hear different people say, ‘This is what we’ve been trying to tell people.’”

Ruth Buffalo celebrates after being sworn in on Dec. 3, 2018, to serve the North Dakota House of Representatives. Contributed: Lea Black Photography

Ruth Buffalo celebrates after being sworn in on Dec. 3, 2018, to serve the North Dakota House of Representatives. Contributed: Lea Black Photography

Buffalo, who also serves as the recently appointed board president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said she has learned more of her own family’s experience in boarding schools well into her adulthood. Though she grew up hearing the boarding school stories of her mother, it wasn’t until this winter that she learned both of her grandparents were survivors of the institutions, too.

The task of uncovering what happened in these schools — and exactly how many children were lost in them — is enormous. In recent years, some academics and researchers have devoted themselves to this history. But, for the vast majority of schools, scholarship is thin to nonexistent. Record-keeping in boarding schools tended to be shoddy, and the stories of what happened inside survive mostly through the memories of Native American elders who attended them.

Some North Dakota tribes, such as the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, are already finding that many of the same bureaucratic barriers that can hinder resources on their reservations also pose steep challenges to their boarding school research.

The tribe recently identified that one of its members, a girl named Mary Charboneu, died at Rapid City Indian School in South Dakota in 1925. Official South Dakota state documents did not record the cause of her death.

“We just wiped out a lot of our history,” said Azure, the tribe’s chairman. “It’s hard to really put in words — really hard to grasp how big this really is and how big it will get.”

During a meeting this month between the Turtle Mountain tribal council and the North Dakota Legislature’s Tribal-State Relations committee, Azure and the tribe’s attorney Alysia LaCounte told lawmakers they believe there are unmarked graves at boarding school sites in North Dakota.

In particular, they have looked to Fort Totten, the military post established in 1867 that also served for decades as a residential school for Native American children, many of them from Turtle Mountain.

But LaCounte told state leaders that even beginning to investigate that site poses daunting bureaucratic hurdles.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was established as a military outpost in 1867 but later served as a boarding school for Native American children for several decades. Forum archives.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was established as a military outpost in 1867 but later served as a boarding school for Native American children for several decades. Forum archives.

Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, is also a state historic site, meaning the tribe will have to go into the state’s jurisdiction to investigate and recover the remains of any tribal members buried there. LaCounte stressed her hope to lawmakers that the state will accommodate them and offer its support in efforts to probe the location.

And even within Turtle Mountain, resources are stretched thin. The Band of Chippewa government is currently without a tribal historic preservation officer.

Even after they fill that position, LaCounte said, delving into the lost history of tribal members who died at boarding schools will be much more than a one-person job.

Azure also pointed out that, when it comes to unmarked graves, “we’re talking about the worst-case scenario.”

Those who survived were nonetheless subjected to harsh conditions and a systematic dismantling of their cultural identities.

Last names were changed.

Native languages were suppressed.

Azure said his 92-year-old grandmother, who attended two boarding schools, has three different recorded birthdays: she was assigned a birth date corresponding to her arrival at each new school.

While tribes like Turtle Mountain moved quickly to begin local investigations into boarding school losses, Buffalo noted the preferences for how to proceed may differ from community to community and tribe to tribe. Steps to investigate lost burial sites, she stressed, must come from the grassroots.

“It can’t be a top-down approach in this type of work,” said Buffalo, who added that, in addition to the research and outreach components of boarding school commissions, steps to promote healing around an issue that has contributed to generations of trauma within Native communities will be just as important.

“It’s really got to be handled with extra care. That’s really got to come from a place of prayer,” she said.

Though miles of red tape and opaque, buried historical records loom over these missions, Azure said tribes won’t let go of their newfound momentum to bring members home and uncover what happened in these schools, “even if it takes the next 20 years.”

For help

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or see the trauma resources provided by the National Native American Healing Coalition.