'Our voices matter': Boarding school descendant holds Haaland accountable
Road to healing? Or road to silence?
Last week, Indigenous Wire brought you a story that explained some of the difficulties federal employees at the U.S. Department of the Interior are having in carrying out the well-meaning Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
In short, it’s a daunting task to oversee a process of reconciliation — for financial and political reasons, for lack of time and staff, and, above all, because it is psychologically-taxing, trauma-filled work that the federal government, especially Interior, does not normally do.
Those are all reasons that Interior is currently hiring for a top coordinator of the initiative to help address the assimilation-based sins of such institutions. (The federal position, you should know, is still open for applications until Oct. 9 and pays up to $170,532 per year, according to the hiring announcement.)
The need for such a position might become ever more clear if you choose to read on for a very personal response to our article from a Native attendee of one of Interior’s boarding school survivor and listening “road to healing” sessions, held on Aug. 13 in Pellston, Mich.
Chandlar Elizabeth Rush, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, after reading our piece, wrote us a message explaining the difficult time she had in getting Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to hear her testimony during an event that was promoted to be open until every last survivor and descendant who wanted to be heard could be heard.
Rush’s words, which you can read in full below, are heartbreaking — not just because she feels that she and her family were let down, and not just because of the tragedies her family faced at boarding school — but also because we’ve heard from other individuals who have felt silenced during Haaland’s federal listening process so far.
How many people, when all is said and done, will not be heard?
Like Rush, these people have made efforts to speak out, but the Executive Branch has failed in its service to them to date. Well-meaning federal leaders have failed, no ifs ands or buts about it. And some of those people who have failed — who care about this topic so much due in part to their own family histories — are simply overwhelmed. And it hurts them deeply that they are failing.
U.S. House legislators, taking testimony from boarding school attendees back in May, have also failed. Some GOP leaders questioned the cost of such reconciliation endeavors, while lacking compassion. And Dem leaders scheduled a hearing at a time when survivors would be jarringly interrupted while telling their deeply personal truths. As we wrote at the time:
Some Native people watching the hearing in person and online found it disconcerting to observe a lengthy recess in the middle of fraught testimony from boarding school survivors as House members were forced to go vote on other legislation. Note to future congressional oversight committees from boarding school survivors and their families and tribes: When people are to testify about sexual abuse, mental anguish, murder, and a collective knowledge that the U.S. government and churches encouraged the behavior — do not schedule such an emotionally intense hearing when other matters are more pressing. It shows a lack of respect.
It’s hard not to feel for Secretary Haaland on this front, too. Indigenous Wire was at the event Rush describes (in a personal and professional capacity), and we could see Haaland dutifully taking notes throughout the day, sometimes tearing up, spending hours listening to horrible tales of abuse, murder and neglect purposely caused by a federal government she now serves from within.
The gathering occurred a few weeks after Haaland had broken her leg while hiking at a national park, and we could see she was ailing at times, soldiering through, trying to do what she had committed to doing before she hurt herself.
She was on crutches, wearing a recovery boot and what looked like a cast, and she winced in pain several times throughout the day.
Her physical and emotional pain were tangible. Newland could sense it, some attendees could sense it, and her staff could, too.
To some attendees — yours truly, included — she became more of a “real” person that day, less of a political icon with all of the pros and cons that go along with such a title. She was struggling to do her best, under a difficult circumstance.
Rush, in her words below, makes an excellent case for Interior and the White House to always do their best work. Haaland, one would like to believe, would heartily agree.
We thank Rush — chi miigwetch — for sharing her family’s story, and we fervently hope her testimony will be seen and addressed by Interior:
This past August, I had the privilege of attending the “Road to Healing” tour, held by the Department of the Interior, in Pellston, MI. The event was promoted as a listening session, where all boarding school survivors and their descendants would have the ability to provide testimony on their experiences. The event was to continue “until all individuals interested in sharing have been heard.” Sadly, this was not the case, and the tour was quickly ended at 5 PM.
The event allowed press to be onsite during the first hour. During this time, both the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, and the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, had no troubles stating they would stay and listen to all. In fact, there were recorded sound bites from the press, as well as numerous articles, proving these statements.
Once lunch concluded and the press was gone, it was clear our voices were becoming an inconvenience. Numerous breaks were taken, limiting the amount of testimony to be heard. A final break was taken around 4 PM and after, it was announced that they would only hear from three more individuals. At this time, I counted at least 10-15 hands that were still raised to give testimony, including myself. Mr. Newland stated that they were going to hear from three individuals who had been waiting all day to speak and then they needed to leave to attend to other business. If the Secretary had business and needed to leave by 5 PM, that should have been stated in the beginning. Instead, our voices were silenced again. Tribal members were still arriving at 5 PM to testify, only to be turned away.
I became flushed with emotions. I had waited all day, just as everyone else, to provide my family’s testimony on the Holy Childhood Boarding school. Why didn’t my family’s trauma matter? Why was I silenced? Did the pain and death we experienced not matter? My grandparents survived, but my great uncle wasn’t as fortunate. His story deserves to be told. His life mattered. We were made to feel our life experiences were used as a political stunt to gain good press coverage.
Going forward, the Department of the Interior should not misrepresent the situation. If limited testimony can be heard, state that. Do not lie and say you will stay and hear everyone when that was clearly not your intention. Please don’t give excuses either. It was made known to everyone in attendance that our voices would be heard. Yes, we would have the option to submit a written statement, but the point of the “Road to Healing” tour was to listen and let all voices be recorded and documented.
Ending the event the way they did was also an insult on all of the tribal volunteers who gave up their time, during our Homecoming Powwow weekend, to make sure everything was handled. From arranging travel and lunch, to setting up chairs and preparing the school to host, this was all done by Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians tribal member volunteers without government assistance and when the Department of the Interior left the way they did, it was as if all the hard work was for nothing.
The “Road to Healing” tour was meant to help bring awareness and healing to the Native American community. Instead, our past traumas were used as a political ploy by the US government. Our voices were not heard. We left in anger, sadness, and humiliation. Our voices matter. Our experiences matter. Our people matter.
Due to the actions of the Department of the Interior, I was unable to share my short statement. I am including it below. It would have taken less than five minutes to hear, but I wasn’t selected to share at an event I was told I would be.
My name is Chandlar Rush. I am the proud granddaughter of Mary Jane and the late Raymond ‘Zebe’ Kiogima. My purpose for speaking to you today is to highlight my grandmother’s story at Holy Childhood. She, along with her siblings, was forced to live through inhumane conditions, abuse, separation, humiliation, and loneliness as they attended “school.” A place we now associate child protections and growth was used to dismantle the innocence of our youth.
My grandmother and her five siblings all boarded at Holy Childhood during the school year. They were stripped of their Native identity and forced to assimilate into western culture. Immediately, their hair was cut short or shaved off, their possessions were taken, and they were separated from each other. They were beaten by nuns using rulers, sticks, and razor strops. “Children were beat so bad…we wouldn’t see them for a long time afterwards, if at all. We didn’t know where they went but we figured they were beaten black and blue.” This was a direct quote from my grandmother. She also shared an experience her brother, Richard, had as a punishment. After having a disagreement with another child, Richard was locked in the basement for two days and nights. He was kept in a small stall; it was dark, cold, and damp. When he was able to rejoin the other children, he wouldn’t speak of what happened while he was locked away.
My grandmother had a younger brother, Vernon, who also attended Holy Childhood. Sadly, his life was cut short at the age of seven, when he died from an untreated illness. He was locked away in the infirmary until his death.
When they were finally able to leave the boarding school, their possessions were to be returned, however most of their items came up missing and were never seen again, along with the lost souls of children who never were able to return home.
After Holy Childhood, my grandmother and my grandfather met, got married, and had two sons. At that time, the nuns were still trying to get Native children to attend the boarding school. Luckily, they were not forced to go there. My grandmother was adamant about protecting her children. When the nuns showed up on their doorstep to inquire on why the boys were not at Holy Childhood, my grandmother responded with, “I went to Holy Childhood and I know what you do to the children. My children will never be left alone with you.” To protect her children from going through the same experience, my grandmother would attend the boys’ catechism classes and would not leave them alone.
My grandmother’s story is very similar to ones previously shared and stories yet to be told. I know she has memories too painful to relive. That is why I speak to you today. I want the world to know how brave she was; how brave they all were. Being taken from their home, ripped of their identity, and forced to survive through inhumane conditions What they went through matters. Their lives matter.
Thank you for allowing me to represent my family today. Thank you, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland for hearing our voices on this Road to Healing tour.
It is my hope that sharing this experience will change how future events are coordinated. Don’t lie to the people who are coming to testify about being lied to, mistreated, raped, and beaten. They have been through enough and do not need your false sympathies.
I was proud to attend and represent my family. I was filled with hope for change and recognition for the tribal community. Instead, I was silenced and forced to watch the American government lie to its people again. This will not be forgotten.
Chandlar Elizabeth Rush
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Tribal Member
Interior is scheduled to hold several more “road to healing” events nationwide in the coming months.
Indigenous attendees will no doubt demand 100 percent accountability. As they should.
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I could not bring myself to submit a statement by email detailing my Mom’s (Norma (Doodle) Wasson,, Ft McDermitt Piute, 1902 - 2006) horrific experiences, injuries and made to do slave labor at rich non-Indian homes and businesses without pay at three different Indian boarding schools: Fort Bidwell, CA; Stewart, NV; and Sherman Institute, Riverside, CA. She was never allowed to go home when school was not in session.
In 1979, I tape recorded my Mom explain her boarding school experiences. She stopped the recording just before she started to cry. It’s that memory of her crying that prevented me from starting and finishing an emailed statement.
Thank you for sharing my family's story.