Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Riverside Indian School in Anadarko on Saturday, the first stop on a tour of listening sessions to document the testimonies of boarding school survivors. 

Starting in the late 1800s, many Native American students were sent to federally operated boarding schools, removing them from their tribes’ influence. 

The schools were mechanisms for forced assimilation – children had their long braids cut, and were punished for using Native names and speaking Native languages. Children were abused, forced to perform manual labor, and many died. Burial sites have been found at more than 50 of the schools.

The federal boarding school system included 408 schools across 37 states and territories between 1819 and 1969, according to a report released this spring. Present-day Oklahoma had the greatest concentration of those schools at 76. 

Why did Haaland come to Anadarko?

In May, the Department of the Interior, a federal agency responsible for conserving public lands and managing relationships with tribal nations, released a report on its first phase of an investigation into the boarding schools, and laid out four goals for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative: 

  • Identify the facilities and sites of federally backed boarding schools. 
  • Identify the names and tribal identities of Native American children who boarded at the schools.
  • Identify the locations of marked and unmarked burial sites, which are at or near the campuses and contain the remains of children who died at the schools. 
  • Incorporate into comprehensive reports the experiences of the survivors and descendants whose lives, families and communities were affected by the schools. 

Haaland also announced the start of a yearlong listening tour called the Road to Healing, during which she and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland will travel across the country and create an oral history based on the testimonies of boarding school survivors. 

Oklahoma was the first stop on the tour.  Haaland also will travel to Hawaii, Michigan, Arizona and South Dakota in 2022, with additional stops to be announced for 2023. 

“Boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know,” Haaland said during the listening session. “Some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry the trauma in our hearts. My ancestors endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead. This is the first time in history that a cabinet secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma, and it’s not lost on me.” 

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, right, covered her heart as she stood for the presentation of colors at the first Road to Healing listening session at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko. Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland stood next to her at the session, which was the first of a series of events intended to document the history of federally-backed, Native American boarding schools around the country. (Brooks Sherman/Oklahoma Watch)

What are they trying to accomplish with the listening tour? 

After the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada, Haaland announced the U.S. would examine its own federal boarding school system, according to a Department of the Interior press release

Congress established the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in September 2021 and tasked it with exploring the impacts of Native American boarding schools. The commission was also called on to provide recommendations on ways to protect unmarked graves, identify the tribal nations from which children were taken, and end the removal of Native American children from their families and tribes by social service departments, foster care agencies and adoption agencies.

Who was there?

About 300 boarding school survivors and community members gathered in Riverside Indian School’s gymnasium. Among the audience members were Kiowa Tribe Chairman Lawrence Spottedbird, Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairman Joseph Rupnick, and Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby.  

Angel Elizarraras

Reporters were allowed to observe the listening session for one hour; seven survivors shared their experiences in boarding schools around the country. Then, a private session without a media presence followed. 

Younger generations shared positive experiences with Oklahoma Watch. Angel Elizarraras, a 17-year-old member of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, incoming Riverside senior and student council president for two years, said the school brought her closer to her roots by teaching her the songs, dances and language of her tribe. 

“This is my seventh year attending Riverside and it’s really a great school,” Elizarraras said. “It’s where total strangers end up becoming family, and all the teachers and staff, they’re amazing, they treat you like you’re their kid.” 

What is the state of Native American boarding schools now? 

Most schools around the country closed by the 1990s, but the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education continues to operate four off-reservation boarding schools in Oklahoma, California, Oregon, and South Dakota. Riverside in Anadarko is the oldest federally run school in the country. According to its website, the school boards nearly 800 students from more than 75 Native American tribes around the country and has taught with a renewed emphasis on tribal self-determination and sovereignty since 1975. 

Other active, tribally run but federally funded schools in Oklahoma include Chickasaw Children’s Village in Kingston, Eufaula Dormitory in Eufaula, Jones Academy in Hartshorne and Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah. 

Nationally, there are 183 federally funded elementary and secondary schools, 53 operated by the bureau and 130 by the tribes. 

Tell us your story

To cover the legacy of Native American boarding schools in Oklahoma, we need your help. We want to talk to people who attended, or currently attend, one of these schools. To tell us your story, email reporter Ari Fife at afife@oklahomawatch.org or Lionel Ramos at lramos@oklahomawatch.org

Ari Fife is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at (405) 517-2847 or afife@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter at @arriifife.

Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 905-9953 or lramos@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos21.


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