Victory song: Boarding school survivor says talking is a prelude to healing

This article was published in Native Sun News in September 2011. It was part of a larger project funded by a grant from the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

The United Nations definition of genocide includes actions many would expect to see in such a statement, including killing and injuring members of the target population. Perhaps more surprisingly for some, the definition also includes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” For Native Americans, this particular aspect of genocide included a century of mandated attendance at violent and repressive boarding schools, say Columbia University professor Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota, and Dr. Lemyra M. DeBruyn, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in their paper, “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief.”

         The two scholars connect social issues in today’s Native communities to the horrors of the schools. “Abusive behaviors—physical, sexual, emotional—were experienced and learned by American Indian children raised in [the school] settings,” they write. The suffering then rolled forward through the generations, as the boarding-school survivors, in turn, raised their own children.

Exacerbating this, say the scholars, are historical attacks on culture, language, family relationships, land base, and more, along with the disproportionately high rates of poverty, prejudice, crime, disease, and early death Native people suffer today.

         For healing to take place, says human-rights activist O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, people must be able to acknowledge and mourn their losses: “For too long, Native American Indians have had to shoulder their burdens and simply try to make it to the next day. We have those who cut themselves to try to relieve the mental pain; when that isn’t enough, they go beyond it to suicide. We must deal with the past, including the boarding school experience, if we are to move on.”

         One recent summer day, Charles Baxter, Omaha, told himself, “This is the time to talk.” His boarding-school memories are recorded below. He points out that Native children were abused at institutions nationwide. News coverage of recent events — the South Dakota legislature changing the statute of limitations to block Native American lawsuits against the Church in that state, along with the big settlement between boarding-school survivors and Jesuits in the Northwest and Alaska — may give the impression that the harm was limited to these regions, according to Baxter.

“It wasn’t,” Baxter said. “It happened at all the boarding schools. And we can’t forget Indian children who went to public school; they were whipped and mistreated, too.”

Here is Baxter’s story:            
“When I’m walking alone in the country, I often think about my years at St. Augustine Indian Mission, on the Winnebago reservation, in Nebraska. I was sent there from my Omaha reservation in 1956 at age 8. I especially remember being part of what they called a belt line. They lined us boys up with our legs apart and made another boy crawl through, while those of us who were standing beat him with straps. If we didn’t hit hard enough, we went through the line ourselves.

“I think about being hit, and the pain is as clear as if it happened yesterday. But most of all, I think about the boys I hit, and I feel so sorry. I remember one boy crying and begging for mercy. He died recently—nothing but a drunk his whole life. Our Native communities are full of alcoholics, thanks to what we suffered and what we did to each other at the boarding schools.

“At St. Augustine, Father Frank Hulsman, the villain who ran the place at the time, had an assistant hold us down in order to beat us with a rubber hose. Father Ralph would refuse to participate, to his credit. The nuns were terrors as well. Sister Domenica would slap us kids, beat us with her hickory pointer, and drag us by the ears. Humiliation was constant, especially for those who tried to run away. Their hair was cut off, and runaway girls had to stand through dinner with their shaved heads bared. I finally left the school in 1959, at about the time my family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I grew up.

“Alcoholism and other problems in our communities didn’t start with my generation. My father went through the same turmoil at boarding school when he was a child and, like others his age, silently carried that burden. Because of his experience, he knew only whipping as a way to discipline his own kids. When I got to school and was whipped some more, this not only instilled a lot of anger in me, it reinforced the idea that this was the way adults related to children. So when I had my kids of my own, I’d whip them, then cry and try to make it up to them.

            “I spent a good deal of my life in prison. I’d go into a blind rage and when it was over, another person would be hurt and I’d be headed back to jail. I’ve got scars and broken bones to show for it. I’ve also been through treatment for alcoholism a few times, which didn’t work.

“Finally, in 2002, I decided to make it work. I went to a counselor, who diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and told me that almost all Indian people could be said to have PTSD. I believe it. That time, the counseling took a lot off my shoulders and helped me deal with my drinking, my family problems, and more.

“Now, at age 62, I need to go further, to bring out what happened in boarding school. As children, we were tortured, and we were made to torture others. That’s the only word for it. This is a story that has to be told. Many of our young people today don’t realize what happened — why we seem like a defeated people. Why so many of us feel nothing will change, so why bother.

“I want our people to stand up and bear testimony to their experiences. I want our people to heal.”

c. Stephanie Woodard