Tim Giago: Boarding school survivors start healing process

The elder Winatchapam (Yakama) woman, Levina Wilkens, was puzzled. She was about to say the prayer to open the Boarding School Healing Symposium in Boulder, Colorado, but she didn’t know which way was East because of the heavy cloud cover.

Jill E. Tompkins, the Symposium Coordinator, pointed out the direction of the rising sun and Levina faced to the East and began a prayer in her native language. With that the Symposium on Indian boarding schools began.

The Symposium was sponsored by several organizations, but was spearheaded by the Native American Rights Fund and the University of Colorado.

Levina was a classic example of the boarding school experience. As a young girl she was raised and educated traditionally and spoke only Sahapin, her Native language. Her education was provided entirely by the tribal elders. Like many young Indians she was forced to attend boarding school in order to keep her grandmother from going to jail. She said that her introduction to civilization was “real crude, cold and harsh.”

She survived the boarding school and went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Education. She often began her introduction to new students with, “I want to know if you will let me teach you?” With this simple statement she opened the door to earning the trust of the students.

I struck up an immediate friendship with Willie Littlechild, a Commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada. Native Americans in the lower 48 have a lot in common with their Canadian cousins.

Willie earned a law degree from the University of Alberta and since he was a gifted athlete, he used his knowledge of sports to found the North American Indigenous Games. He is currently working on the World Indigenous Games that are scheduled for 2012 in Winnepeg.

Willie spent 14 years in an Indian institutional school. One morning as we lined up to get our breakfast Willie said, “It’s Sunday and at the residential school this was the only day we got toast.” This caused me to laugh and I told him, “That’s right, this is Sunday and it is the only day of the week that we got cornflakes.”

During a morning discussion two more Canadians made comments that stuck with me. Richard Grounds, Ph.D. of Yuchi and Seminole descent, the Project Director for the Euchee Language Project based in Sapulpa, Oklahoma talked about trying to type rapidly on his computer. He said, “Whenever I am typing away it seems that whenever I come to the word ‘church’ it always comes out as ‘crutch.’” This brought a laugh from the attendees.

This caused Marie Wilson, an impressive lady with a long list of achievements from Canada, and also a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commented, “And when I try to type ‘reconciliation’ rapidly I always leave out an ‘I.’” Psychosomatic? Probably!

Don Coyhis, Mohican, the President of the White Bison, Inc., showed the movie he filmed about boarding school survivors. The movie was a series of live interviews Coyhis did while interviewing survivors. It was a very dramatic and oftentimes tragic series of revelations by the former students. Some of the elders interviewed broke down and cried, unable to finish their comments.

Another film was aired on Saturday night. It was produced and directed by Rosemary Gibbons, a Mimbres Apache/Chicana lady. Her film, “A Century of Genocide in the Americas: The Residential School Experience,” was a short film that attempted to explain how Indian residential schools became havens for institutionalized sexual abuse. The film ran about 17 minutes but it was a powerful revelation about the sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up of the abuse by the clergy of the institutions.

Chaired by NARF attorney, Don Wharton, a most amiable man, the Symposium was geared to bring boarding school and residential school survivors together to look at ways and means of bringing a process of healing to the survivors.

This first get together was more of a formative meeting to bring some of the most qualified educators, attorneys and survivors together, and they were some of the most impressive people I have ever met. In two short days many friendships were formed, many ideas tossed around, and I believe that the foundation was set for more things to come.

I look forward to the next meeting. The list of attendees was impressive and not only was I able to impart some of my experiences to the group, I also learned a great deal, especially from our Canadian counterparts.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the former editor and publisher of Indian Country Today. He is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. His book "Children Left Behind" is available at amazon.com.

Related Stories:
Tim Giago: Native Americans endure 500 years of terrorism (5/16)
Tim Giago: Indian tribes the easy victim in national budget crisis (3/7)
Tim Giago: Walking away from the editor's desk after 30 years (2/28)
Tim Giago: Winters in South Dakota set records that still stand (2/21)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee occupation was serious AIM blunder (2/14)
Tim Giago: Native Americans are the invisible consumers out West (2/7)
Tim Giago: Native journalists owe a big debt to USA Today founder (1/31)
Tim Giago: Indian Country Today denies readers the right to know (1/24)
Tim Giago: Freedom of the press not really alive in Indian Country (1/17)
Tim Giago: Three warriors are gone, but the mascot fight lives on (1/10)
Tim Giago: Sunday night movies at boarding school in South Dakota (1/3)
Tim Giago: US hasn't apologized for massacre at Wounded Knee (12/20)

Join the Conversation