• June 18th, 2024
  • Tuesday, 05:14:54 AM

My Indian Boarding School Horror Story


Photo: Lakota Law Project Madonna Thunder Hawk

Madonna Thunder Hawk

 

If you’ve been tuned into the news, you’ve surely seen the stories: more than a thousand graves of children found at Canadian Indian boarding schools in recent weeks; the (probably retaliatory) burning of churches on First Nations reservations; and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s formation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate similar atrocities committed on U.S. soil.

 

There’s a lot of justified anger and trauma in Indian Country right now. For many of us, the reality of what happened in these horrific church-run and state-sanctioned facilities is not something we want to relive. That said, because I was there, I want to share with you some of what my experience looked like.

 

There’s a lot of justified anger and trauma in Indian Country right now. For many of us, the reality of what happened in these horrific church-run and state-sanctioned facilities is not something we want to relive.

 

By the time I went to boarding school in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, things weren’t as horrifying as they’d once been. I spent a period of these years in the U.S. government and parochial boarding school systems on and off the Cheyenne River reservation. It may not surprise you to learn that I was always on the verge of getting kicked out. They said I was “too mouthy!”

 

My parents’ generation had it much harder. In their day, boarding schools were military in style and very strict. In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, my mother attended Pipestone Elementary. It was a U.S. government school, but many like it were parochial, mainly Catholic. She and her classmates were made to wear uniforms and march wherever they went. Neither crying nor laughing was allowed. No one talked, and many tried to escape, but they would always be found and brought back against their will. Then the administrators would shave their heads bald, march them into the auditorium, string them up, and flog them. All the other kids were made to watch as a lesson in what happens when you run away. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many children died from illness under these harsh conditions.

 

This is the intergenerational trauma that I and so many of my contemporaries still live with today. It informs our current fight to keep our young ones from being stolen away into white foster “care.” It’s why we, as an organization, back Secretary Haaland’s investigation, and why we hope even more will be done to empower a true reckoning here in the U.S. — through an audit of our own school properties and teaching real history in the schools of today. There is much that our past can show, if everyone will stop turning away from the truth.

 

Wopila tanka — thank you for your understanding and allyship at this hard moment.

 

Madonna Thunder Hawk, Cheyenne River Organizer with The Lakota People’s Law Project.

 

 

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