ANADARKO, Okla. (KFOR) – The US Department of the Interior started it’s year-long nationwide “Road to Healing” tour in Oklahoma. The initiative’s goal is to give survivors a platform to share and describe the horrors endured at Federal Indian Boarding Schools. The first stop was at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko.
“What they did to us makes you feel so inferior. That you don’t feel worthy of anything,” said one survivor speaking to a crowd packed inside the Riverside gymnasium.
“I spent twelve years in this hell hole. And that’s what it was like, Hell,” said another survivor. “I will never forgive this school for what they did to me.”
Oklahoma Native American tribal elders shed light on powerful trauma stemming from decades of abuse, while attending government-backed Indian Boarding Schools like Riverside in Anadarko.
“As the nation’s oldest federally-operated Indian Boarding School, Riverside’s also a reminder of a painful time in our history,” said Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
The US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, hopes her year-long “Road to Healing Tour” will help document the history of beatings, whippings, and sexual assaults endured after Native children were forced into boarding schools.
“My ancestors endured the horrors of the Indian Boarding School assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead. This is the first time in history that a Cabinet secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma,” said Haaland.
The agency recently released a report identifying more than 400 schools, whose goal it was to assimilate Native children into white society in the late 1700’s up until the late 1960’s.
“For more than 182 years, boarding schools was the chosen weapon to destroy our culture, destroy language, and try to destroy our religion. They failed,” said a family member of a boarding school survivor.
The elders told tales of being ripped from their homes as children. They said they were stripped of their heritage, identity, and innocence.
“The matron took her scissors and cut our hair and filled our heads with DDT. This was later banned by the US government as a dangerous pesticide,” said one survivor.
Another elder said he remembered being pushed into a bathroom after arriving at a boarding school.
“Took all my clothes off, and [they] threw a bunch of green stuff all over me. It stung like hell. They said ‘If you cry, we will whip you,’” said the survivor. “I started crying and they whipped me, and they whipped me, and they whipped me and they whipped me into shape. By that I mean I had to learn their ways.”
“[The matrons] told me I was no longer allowed to use my name. I was given a number and my number was 199,” said another woman who survived. “They put a metal cross in my hand and told me I was going to be an Episcopalian and to go in and ask for forgiveness of who I was.”
“We were sodomized. Men, girls, boys, we were sodomized. And people knew that was going on and did nothing to stop it,” said a survivor.
“Why is it that only Indian Boarding Schools have cemeteries?” asked a survivor speaking on behalf of a woman in his family. “If she was to speak on the sexual assault perpetrated on her, that she would find herself in that cemetery.”
Although their past may have a hold on their present, the elders agree what needs to happen in the future.
“This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian Boarding Schools set out to break,” said Haaland.
Riverside Indian Boarding school is still in use today but with a completely different mission. It hopes to preserve the Native American culture that was once nearly stripped away.