Oral History Project preserving voices of Native boarding school survivors

OklahomaEducationHealthPoliticsCommunity Indigenous
Collaborator: VNN Collaboration
Published: 03/18/2024, 6:42 PM
Edited: 03/25/2024, 3:30 AM
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Written By: Rachael Schuit and Brittany Harlow

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) It is a dark history that still impacts many families across Oklahoma and the rest of the United States. Between 1819 and the 1970’s, tens of thousands of Native American children were removed from their families and cultures and forced to attend boarding schools.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), more than 523 Boarding Schools for Native American children were government funded. Abuse and efforts to abolish Native American cultures led to lifelong and generational trauma for Native communities.

NABS Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Acting Director of the Oral History Project Dr. Samuel Torres (Mexica/Nahua) has been with the organization since 2019. 

“The Healing Coalition was formed in 2011 as a grassroots organization for the purposes of making sure that the United States is working towards truth, justice and healing for Indian Boarding School survivors,” Torres said. 

Torres said shortly after their formation, NABS sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government asking how many institutions there were in the United States, how many students attended them, how many students never came home, and how many institutional cemeteries there were. 

That data was not made available to NABS at the time, or simply did not exist. 

“Over the past couple of years we have seen a dramatic shift, a transformation from avoiding the question of what happened to our relatives at boarding school to the US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland initiating the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative," Torres said. "And we have worked with the Interior Department for several years now to coordinate, share our research, work on different methodological processes which created the first volume of the Indian Boarding School report.” 

Torres said they are now working on the second report as well as their own Oral History Project

NABS will travel across the country as part of the two-year project, which will not only collect oral interviews with boarding school survivors, but also heal and honor their experiences. 

“This historic project is a lifeline to preserving the voices and memories of Indian boarding school survivors,” NABS CEO Deborah Parker (Tulalip) said.  

The interviews are conducted on video by oral historians thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). Support by trauma-informed mental health providers is also available. 

“We’re losing elders every day, due to old age and other issues and instances,” Torres said. “And time is truly of the essence.” 

NABS selected Oklahoma as its first stop to interview boarding school survivors due to the state topping the nation with the most locations at 95. 

The work began Monday with an opening ceremony and community dinner at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City. Interviews were then held in private rooms over the course of the week. 

Torres said there were few words he could pin to their first week of interviews, but powerful was definitely one of them. 

"Just an amazing week to spend time with relatives, to hold space with them," Torres said. "Hard conversations were had, absolutely, but to be able to have these visits together in such a mindful, meaningful way. We’re not just here to seek trauma. We’re here to open pathways toward healing and to connect relatives with resources.” 

Torres said NABS will continue to follow up with the connections they’ve made weeks and months into the future. 

“This is about building relationships ultimately; it’s not just about building a collection,” Torres said.  

A community lunch and thank you ceremony were held on Friday in lieu of a "closing" ceremony, as organizers said the work has just begun. 

NABS Elder-in-Residence Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) said they are honored by those who were brave enough to share their stories with them thus far.

“You are the reason we’re still here,” White Hawk said. “I want you to leave with that and remember that. I don’t care what you did in your younger years when you didn’t know any better. And you were working out pain. I lived like that many years myself.” 

White Hawk said Native ways, songs and medicines are what heal Native people and bring them back, such as what was experienced in Oklahoma City. 

“And who would have thought that when we release that hard stuff, that negative stuff, that the good will be in there,” White Hawk said. “We’re going to feel light, more love. We don’t even realize how much we’re carrying because it became normal to us. And so this is all the joy and lightness that you feel after having shared whatever you shared.” 

Boarding school survivors who take part in the project are given an honorarium, a care package made by Native Artisans, and a copy of their interview, in addition to ongoing support from the NABS team. 

NABS is also partnering with tribes, Indigenous organizations, and community leaders to ensure that the project is culturally sensitive and respectful.

Survivors who would like to schedule an interview can email OralHistoryProject@nabshc.org or call (651)-650-4445.

This story has been updated to include additional information following Friday's community lunch and thank you ceremony.

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