Compassion: Acknowledging the Indian Boarding School
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
By Molly Murfee
Between 1869 and 1978 hundreds of thousands of Native children were taken from their homes and families and sent to the 365 Indian Boarding School sites in the United States. These federally-funded Christian-run schools executed an ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide where indigenous children were punished for speaking their Native language, stripped of their Native clothes and hair, and banned from acting in any way that reflected their Native traditions.
In the beginning of the movement, in 1872, the Episcopalians ran eight schools in the Dakotas with 26,929 Native children. The Baptists ran five in Utah, Idaho, and Indian Territory with 40,800 Native children. The Catholics ran seven schools with 17,856 Native children. The Methodists ran 14 schools in the Pacific Northwest with 54,743 Native children. The Presbyterians ran nine schools in the Southwest with 38,069 Native children. My home of Colorado can claim six of these schools: Fort Lewis, Good Shepard Industrial School, Grand Junction, Holy Cross Abbey, Ignacio, and Southern Ute.
In these places, these Native children endured physical, sexual, cultural, and spiritual abuse and neglect. Many never returned home. Many were never accounted for.
In 1925 60,889 children were enlisted in these boarding schools. This is the time of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The traumatic memories of these experiences live amongst us today not only in actual survivors, but in the generational trauma rising from a tribal loss of language, community, identity, and traditions. Survivors live and lived in a world of low self-esteem and a difficulty forming healthy relationships. Native rights advocates trace suicide, alcohol, and substance abuse directly to this shameful era in our collective history.
There is a story with tendrilled roots in ancient Celtic Grail mythology called Parzival, written in the 1200s by Wolfram von Eschenbach, one of the greatest epic poets of medieval German literature. Here, our hero Parzival finds himself in the Otherworldly Grail Castle with abundant riches and a never-ending feast. But there is a problem: Anfortas, lord of the castle, suffers from a terrible wound. Yet, even as Anfortas presents Parzival with a prized sword, Parzival ignores the wound, saying nothing of it. In the morning, the castle of abundance, and all in it, have vanished. Later, the hideous hag Cundrie appears to Parzival, admonishing him for not asking Anfortas “the” question. Years pass, and after many battles (of course), Parzival finds himself again at the Grail Castle. Anfortas’ condition has worsened, and he suffers greatly. He screams repeatedly, the stench of his wound filling the room. With the old woman Cundrie at his side, Parzival finally asks, “Uncle, what ails you?” Finally, with this, a question of compassion, Anfortas is healed.
We can no longer look the other way, pretending this wound in our collective history doesn’t exist, running about with our blinders on. There’s a summer barbeque to go to. Peaks to climb. Stravas to tick.
It is time to pause, to stop consuming and projecting ourselves onto the world, to turn to the Native people in this land and ask, “What ails you?”
It is difficult. Because to do so we must be ready to listen to the hurt and the anger. This is compassion, and it demands we sit in the fire with another, feeling what they feel. It means putting down our swords, our defenses, our egos, and our ignorance, and moving forward with a receptive and open heart. It hurts.
I am armed with multiple degrees and initials after my name. I am a faculty in a graduate school at a university. And I will admit, for the sake of the vulnerability we all must step into, that the work of de-colonization terrifies me. I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong terms, leaving something out, or showing a gap in my knowledge I didn’t even know was there. Despite my assertive public proclamations through my printed words, I actually have a very tender heart. I am afraid of the reactions from the people my ancestors have harmed, either willingly or not. I don’t know if I can shoulder the anger and the hurt.
But I am going to.
I am going to read and become as informed as I possibly can about our shared history. I am going to honor the pain, make space for the grief and outrage and sorrow to exist. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart in her 1995 book The Return to the Sacred Path: Healing from Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief Among the Lakota states we must first learn about, understand, and acknowledge the trauma. After we learn, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition recommends we work with native groups to make amends. We listen. We ask them what we can do. We activate our Congress and President with recommendations supporting truth, reconciliation, and healing.
I walk out to the Wastelands, kneeling in the granules and chunks of coal. Tears pour down my face. “I am so very sorry,” I say to the land, to the spirits of the ancestors of the Ute that might still be hiding in the shadows. I don’t know if they can hear me. I don’t know if they even care to talk to me. I would understand if they didn’t. But I sit for awhile anyway, and listen.
It’s a start.
Evans, Noelle E.C. “A Federal Probe into Indian Boarding School Gravesites Seeks to Bring Healing.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/07/11/1013772743/indian-boarding-school-gravesites-federal-investigation
National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition ( https://boardingschoolhealing.org/): This non-profit organization has a host of resources for educators, as well as activism suggestions for everyone from citizens to churches to help heal this wound.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. She is additionally a faculty with the MFA in Creative Writing, Nature Writing Concentration at Western Colorado University. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.