Indigenous community members in Lawrence gather to remember victims of Native American boarding schools, recognize ‘intergenerational trauma’

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Bishop David Wilson, the episcopal leader of the more than 750 United Methodist Churches across Kansas and Nebraska, speaks during a service honoring National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

Members of Lawrence’s Indigenous community gathered on Saturday to remember the victims of Indian boarding schools that for more than a century sought to assimilate Native American children into white society — including Haskell Institute, the precursor to Haskell Indian Nations University.

Saturday was the National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools, and the memorial service at Central United Methodist Church, 1501 Massachusetts St., gave community members an opportunity to honor the Indigenous children who endured having their culture stripped away during the boarding school era.

The service was hosted by the United Methodist Church’s Great Plains Conference, which covers Kansas and Nebraska. Among the speakers was Bishop David Wilson, a member of the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes, who is the first Native American ever elected to lead the more than 750 churches in the conference.

“This day is a day for us to honor the victims and survivors of U.S. Indian boarding schools, and recognize the ongoing trauma resulting from federal Indian boarding school policies,” he said.

At the hundreds of Native American boarding schools that operated across the U.S. for 150 years, children were forced to abandon their native tongues and speak English instead, which Wilson said caused harm that can still be felt today. He said the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs recently projected that out of the approximately 167 Indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. today, only 20 are likely to remain by 2050.

Haskell Institute in Lawrence was no exception to these policies. According to a federal study of the boarding schools that was released in 2022, Haskell Institute intentionally mixed Native American children from 31 different tribes to disrupt tribal relations and discourage or prevent the use of each tribe’s language. Children who attended Haskell Institute were also made to cultivate strawberries and “encouraged to enjoy the work,” according to the report, and the federal boarding school system as a whole focused on vocational training involving child manual labor.

Wilson said the lives of Native Americans are “haunted” each day by these past injustices — but he also said there were examples of resilience to be found in the young people who survived the boarding schools.

Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes spoke Saturday about tribal elders who pushed back against assimilation into white society, and he said he and his brother became “language activists” years ago in an effort to carry on that legacy. He said that the people who were taught that their language “will only bring you pain” while attending boarding schools demonstrated their resilience by ignoring what they were told and speaking it anyway, and Barnes said that makes it all the more important for people today to remember what happened.

“We all have those family members who carry some missing piece inside of them that they have to fill up with something else, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, violence or whatever the social ill may be,” Barnes said. “This is intergenerational trauma. This is what’s passed on from one family to the next. This is the legacy of boarding schools.”

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was originally scheduled to speak at the service, but ultimately was unable to attend as federal lawmakers attempted to avoid a government shutdown. Instead, Davids’ community liaison, Emma Swinney, shared a prepared statement.

In the statement, Davids said she believes a big part of her role as a congresswoman is to educate her colleagues about the federal government’s responsibilities to Native American tribes, including acknowledging the more shameful elements of American history.

“The federal government and our country must do better to acknowledge … and understand the full truth of these policies,” Davids said in her statement.


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