Ramona Klein’s voice quivered as she sat before a U.S. House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., recounting horrific childhood memories of Fort Totten Indian boarding school in North Dakota, where she was a student.
There, she said, she was starved, beaten, humiliated, and sexually assaulted. Oftentimes, she found herself staring out the frosty window of her dormitory, longing for home and to see her mother and father.
Klein was 7 years old when she and five other siblings were ripped from her parents and sent to the school under a federal program to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white society — a program that withstood challenge for more than 150 years.
“I remember seeing my mom as she stood and watched six of her eight children being placed on a big green bus and taken to Fort Totten,” Klein, now 74, testified Thursday, May 12. “That image is forever imprinted in my mind and in my heart.”
Klein, an educator and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, was one of several American Indians who spoke at Thursday’s hearing before the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, in support of Rep. Sharice Davids’ H.R. 5444, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act.
The hearing came a day after the Department of Interior released a first-of-its-kind investigative report revealing that more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children died at 19 Indian boarding schools from the early 19th century through the late 1960s.
As the federal investigation continues, the Interior Department expects the death toll to increase by the thousands, possibly the tens of thousands, according to the report.
The study has identified 408 boarding schools that operated in 37 states, or then territories, as well as 53 burial sites across the federal boarding school system, a number that also is expected to increase over the course of the investigation.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and the first American Indian to head the federal agency, launched the investigation in June 2021 amid the grim discoveries of skeletal remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at former Indian boarding schools in Canada.
Accounting for the number of child deaths has been difficult because records weren’t always kept. The COVID-19 pandemic also limited the Interior Department’s research and its ability to access documents and the facilities that house them, according to the report.
Sherman Indian High School, formerly Sherman Institute, in Riverside and the former St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning, which now lay in ruins, are among the hundreds of boarding schools being tapped in the multiphase investigation expected to take years.
Sherman is one of only four remaining Indian boarding schools in the country still operated by the federal government. The other three are in Oregon, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said.
Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure that any children’s remains that are found are properly cared for and delivered back to their tribes, if desired.
Davids’ legislation would complement the Interior Department’s investigation by establishing a formal commission to investigate and document assimilation practices at Indian boarding schools and their policies to strip Indigenous peoples of their culture and language, said Davids, D-Kansas, during Thursday’s hearing.
“This bill does not duplicate the efforts of the Department of Interior, but rather expands and continues to acknowledge that legacy with the help of survivors, tribal leaders, policy experts and communities that can help guide this process,” said Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the first LGBT American Indian elected to Congress.
Bryan Newland, the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary of Indian affairs, said the report presents an opportunity for the federal government to reorient its policies to support the revitalization of tribal languages and cultural practices.
“This reorientation of federal policy is necessary to counteract nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at the destruction of tribal languages and cultures,” Newland said in the report.
Newland has recommended, among other things, prioritizing research of the more than 98 million documents gathered or discovered during the investigation, identifying survivors of Indian boarding schools, such as those who spoke during Thursday’s hearing in Washington, and documenting their experiences.
Local tribal members weigh in
Assemblyman James Ramos, a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and former chairman of the tribe, said the number of child deaths noted in the federal government’s report is not surprising, and substantiates what tribal communities have known all along.
Before his grandmother, Martha Manuel Chacon, died in March 2000 at age 89, she recounted her childhood experiences at St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning in a recorded interview.
Chacon said students subsisted on beans, two slices of bread and water daily and were fed hot dogs and potatoes and bread on Sunday, while the priests enjoyed lavish spreads of roast meat, cakes and pies in their dining room.
On one occasion, after slapping an overbearing nun who was taunting and bullying her, she was ordered to remove her blouse and whipped with a leather strap.
“It was traumatic,” Ramos said in a telephone interview. “Even after all those years, when bringing it up she got quiet and didn’t want to talk about it anymore. My grandmother was able to get back to the reservation, but many others weren’t allowed to come back home.”
He said the awareness raised now on what occurred at Indian boarding schools starts the process of recovery for so many Indigenous peoples.
“It starts to open that door to healing, because now there is true acknowledgment that this has happened,” Ramos said. “And now there’s more advocacy around it.”
Anthony Morales, chairman of the Gabrieleno San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, commends the federal government for its investigation, but questions why it doesn’t extend to the California Mission system, where thousands of Indigenous peoples died during similar assimilation processes.
He said approximately 6,000 Indigenous people — from his tribe and others across the country — died at the San Gabriel Mission and are buried in and around there.
“The mission system was no different than the (Indian) boarding school system,” Morales said. “To me, what’s the difference?”
Charles Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, said in a statement that the government’s report marks a significant first step toward acknowledging the “dark history of past federal policies of assimilation” among Indigenous peoples that “resulted in the heartbreaking deaths of untold numbers of children.”
“More work is needed to chronicle these abuses and the historic wrongs that sought to eradicate tribes, tribal languages and tribal cultures, and to identify the children who were stolen from their families before vanishing into this system,” Martin said.
In a statement Thursday, San Manuel Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena said the tribe and other Indigenous communities contend with the tragic experiences of the federal boarding school system to the present day.
“This Department of Interior report substantiates what we have known for generations, that this Nation cannot confine these traumas to a foregone era,” Valbuena said. “We are encouraged to see that this report holds that healing and reconciliation must include ongoing restoration of our Native languages and customs that were almost lost to us.”
Klein recalled being huddled under scratchy wool Army blankets at Fort Totten as she was preyed upon by the matron’s son.
“I remember being afraid to sleep at night, fearful of the matron’s son who walked the halls at night using a flashlight to spot me in bed,” said Klein, her voice trembling as she spoke during Thursday’s hearing. “He touched me like no child should ever be touched.”
And, like many other Indigenous girls brought to the boarding schools, Klein remembers her long hair being cut short like a boy’s, then fine-combed with kerosene because it was assumed she had head lice. It earned her the name “Butch” by her peers at the school.
Deborah Parker, CEO for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, or NABS, which has been assisting the federal government in its investigation, said aside from sexual abuse, students were often placed in solitary confinement and made to discipline each other with gauntlets or leather straps.
And, of course, children died.
“Children were beaten to death,” said Parker, a member of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington. She said death was so prevalent that cemeteries were created on school grounds.
“For the voices of those that have never had the chance to return home, for those that were forever changed by this extreme cruelty, for those that were chained to basement radiators, for those that were sexually abused, told to wash up and to return to the marching lines, for those that were told that they would be forgotten, we are here to remind you to remember these children,” Parker said.
The Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples did not vote on Davids’ bill Thursday. It will be accepting written testimony until May 26, said Jennifer Blevins, spokeswoman for NABS.