Education | Opinion

Sarah Eagle Heart: Boarding schools taught us to be ashamed

The following is the opinion of Sarah Eagle Heart. All content © Native Sun News.

Members of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska who were sent to the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania in 1880. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration

The boarding schools taught us to be ashamed of being Indian
By Sarah Eagle Heart

“It’s hard to forgive,” said a Lakota Episcopal elder from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation with his voice wavering. Tears sprang to my eyes as he shared his story of being punished for speaking Lakota as a child in a Catholic boarding school.

I knew this was a deep pain this elder had rarely shared. His experience is one I’ve heard from many people in many places. There were 500 Indian boarding schools in 18 states administered by several denominations beginning in 1819, and as late as 1973, called the Indian Boarding School Era.

Shame is in the midst of the entire boarding school experience and remains in today’s contemporary context.

The message the elders received at the hands of administrators and sometimes even older native youth, whether the school was government-run or church-run, was that it was shameful to be an “Indian”.

Surprisingly, some elders valued the experience because they believe it saved them from a difficult home life on the reservation and/or prepared them for life in western society; while others suppress or refuse to face the painful cost still present from this assimilation attempt.

While Native people have been able to lift up the beauty of our culture and people publicly, subconsciously the shameful message still remains.

Often, this message emerges as lateral oppression, in which native people judge spirituality or cultural knowledge of their indigenous brothers and sisters. Today, this is the shame some Native youth mirror in their bullying tactics.

This is the dichotomy our indigenous people face in today’s contemporary context.

As a Program Officer for the Episcopal Church, I have been honored to observe and learn about the spiritual experience of indigenous peoples around the world. I am not there to convert. I am not there to assimilate. I am a resource for cultural interpretation, mediation, to provide witness to their experience, and advocate for needs of indigenous peoples. I am present to learn the parallels in tribal issues.

The Native American reaction to the policy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” is complex and many would deem exactly the original intention to divide and conquer nations of people.

Lateral oppression is counterintuitive to Lakota values. It is extremely painful to watch the cycle of oppression continue at the hands of our own people, especially when loss of cultural knowledge is not their fault.

There is so much need in our communities; teen suicide prevention, human trafficking laws, substance abuse programs, family violence awareness and high poverty levels need to be addressed. This reality is the same across the board for Native Americans or Alaska Natives. Wealthy tribe or not, we all have in common the colonial experience.

Since 2009, the focus of my work has been healing and action as a response to poverty alleviation in partnership with Native American wellness programs teaching about the true history of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

These partnerships are accompanied by Asset Based Community Development training, teaching communities to focus on achieving community goals from an asset-based perspective, rather than a needs-based perspective, empowering individual skills in strategic community planning.

The theory was Native Americans and Alaska Natives could only begin to truly move forward through healing. Healing in whatever way necessary for the individual whether it is traditional, Christian-based, or elsewise. Trainings were open to all in the community and the hope was the entire community would be inspired to work together for a common purpose.

I have learned healing and spirituality is a very personal experience. My own spirituality came together when I learned I did not have to choose between traditional Lakota spirituality and being an Episcopalian.

The message I received growing up in the LaCreek District of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, from church leaders, was you could only be Christian. The message I received from traditional spiritual leaders was you could only be traditional.

So I didn’t choose, nor did I come to terms with my own spirituality until I was almost 30 years old; when I learned I could follow both traditional Lakota spirituality and Christianity.

I have teenage sons and wanted them to find their own spirituality, whether it was Christian or not. I knew a cultural and spiritual foundation was crucial, especially growing up in a military lifestyle. I wanted them to be grounded in their identity of being Oglala Lakota.

So, I made sure we came home to the reservation every summer. When my sons found themselves called to sun dance, the first question I asked the spiritual leader was if he knew what I did as an occupation and if this would prohibit their participation. I was worried my sons would experience verbal attacks for my work.

This worry was based upon the volatile reaction I often receive when tribal leaders learn of the organization I work for and assume it is still the church of the 1800’s. The spiritual leader said no and would ensure my sons had a good experience.

Last year, my eldest son finished his five-year sun dance commitment at age 18 and assisted his little brother as he entered the sacred circle for the first time. Watching them pray together next to the sun dance tree, is a moment I will never forget.

In that moment tears sprang to my eyes and my family, sitting under the cedar arbor, all had tears of pride. We had won a small fight against the intergenerational loss of culture imposed upon our ancestors.

The sacred hoop had begun to mend in my family.

I do not claim to have all the answers. I offer my humble perspective in the hope our indigenous people find a way to love, accept and respect one another. Just as I hope and pray non-indigenous people do the same. Indigenous people will need to work on healing for generations to come.

The complexity of healing was forcibly imposed upon us. It is up to our people to work together for collective healing and community action so we can share only tears of joy.

(Sarah Eagle Heart can be reached at

(Editor’s note: Tim Giago’s “Children Left Behind” is a very good contemporary book on this topic. It is a must read for former boarding school students and for their descendants. It can be obtained through Amazon.Com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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