'I can take this': Former boarding school students tell Haaland about abuse, mistreatment (2023)

MANY FARMS — June Marie Wauneka was determined to tell Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs about the trauma of attending a Kayenta boarding school when she was a child.

Wauneka drove to Arizona in from Cedar City, Utah, and stayed with her niece, Lynette Willie, in Window Rock so they could both attend Haaland's "Road to Healing" tour at the Many Farms High School School gymnasium Sunday.

Willie had never really heard her aunt's stories, so along with Haaland, Hobbs, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland and Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, she listened to what Wauneka went through.

“We had our hair cut. My grandma had taught us to have long hair and take care of it but it was cut off and that was the biggest thing that I thought was wrong,” Wauneka said, recalling her and her three sisters' arrival at boarding school. “We couldn’t talk Navajo to each other. We were forbidden to say Navajo words, and when we did, they got the soap and washed out our mouths.”

Wauneka was one of several former students speaking at the event. Two days earlier, Haaland, Newland, and Hobbs stopped at the Gila Crossing Community School on the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix to hear other boarding school stories. Haaland is traveling around the country where boarding schools were located to gather oral testimonies from students about the treatment they endured at the schools and the long-term suffering it caused.

Previous stops have been in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Michigan. There were about 47 boarding schools in Arizona, with two of them in Many Farms, a community near Chinle on the Navajo Nation.

'I can take this': Former boarding school students tell Haaland about abuse, mistreatment (2)

Enduring punishment as her friends watched

After she was forced to eat food she’s never had before, such as sauerkraut, fighting off bullies, getting punished by dorm maids and being told she was "naughty," Wauneka said she and her friends ran away from the dorm.

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“A couple of my friends ran away to home,” said Wauneka. “They found us and brought us back. The last time we ran away we were punished. They had us stand in line, put out our hands and they wanted to know who was the one that planned to run away. We all stood there and didn't want to tell on one another. We stood there and they had a big, long ruler and kept on hitting our hands.”

She told herself she’d taken “beatings” and “whippings” from her grandpa when he was drunk, and she knew she could endure this kind of punishment. As the other students started to cry, they were told to sit down, but Wauneka stood defiantly and took the whippings until her hands bled.

“I said 'I can do this. I can take this,'” said Wauneka Sunday, as her voice began to crack with emotion. “Pretty soon it was hurting so bad, the kids were saying ‘Come on. Come on. Please sit down.’ So finally I did.”

There were about 367 government-funded, and often church-run, Indian boarding schools across the U.S. in the 1800s and 1900s, according to the National Native American Boarding School Coalition. Children were forcibly abducted by government agents and sent to schools hundreds of miles away. When Wauneka told members of the Paiute tribe, who live near her in Cedar City, that she would be attending the healing tour, they told her their own stories, hoping she could relay it for them to Haaland.

“She told the people there that she was coming here today, and some of the Paiutes got together and told her their stories,” Willie told Haaland. “She has 19 brothers and sisters, and a lot of her siblings went, my aunts and uncles began to talk about it. I think just you being here initiating that has started that road for them to share that. I haven't heard these things from her and when I did, I wept, because she was just a child.”

'Road to Healing':Interior Secretary Deb Haaland hears from Indian boarding school survivors in Arizona

Forced to leave home for boarding school

'I can take this': Former boarding school students tell Haaland about abuse, mistreatment (3)

Eleanor Smith said she was there to be a voice for her mother, Marie Peterson. Peterson grew up in Black Mesa, in a traditional Navajo home. Her family lived in a hogan, and as a child she was taught to run toward the east in the morning and say her morning prayers while giving an offering of corn pollen from the pollen pouch she carried.

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But that changed when she was around 8 or 9, Smith said. A black car with a big white star on the side of it and a big truck came to the family's hogan to take Peterson and her siblings away to boarding school.

“It was the BIA,” said Smith. “They were there to basically round up Navajo children to take to the boarding schools. The family, not knowing hardly a word of English, and the Navajo police officer was there to interpret to my grandparents, that ‘you have to put your fingerprint on this document to send your kids away to boarding school. If you don’t, you will be arrested.’”

With no other option, Smith said her grandparents placed their fingerprints on the document to allow for their children to be “torn away from their parents.”

“I can just imagine the trauma that they had to go through,” said Smith, as she tried holding back tears telling her mom’s story. “Not knowing a word of English, yet forced to speak it. Not knowing a foreign culture, yet having to conform to it. They were loaded up into the truck and they were taken away, crying, screaming for their parents. She said they just held each other. There were cousins in that truck also, and they just all held onto each other.”

Her mom, now in her 80s, was taken to Albuquerque Indian School. Once they arrived at the school, Peterson, like Wauneka, had her hair chopped off after they were checked for lice.

“In our Navajo culture we are taught that ‘your hair is part of your spirit and body,’” said Smith. “They held it as sacred, but yet their hair was chopped. They had no control. Their corn pollen pouches were taken away and thrown in the trash.”

'I can take this': Former boarding school students tell Haaland about abuse, mistreatment (4)

It wasn’t long after that Peterson contracted tuberculosis and was taken to a sanatorium in Santa Fe, where she had to have surgery to remove part of her lung. She stayed in Santa Fe for the entire school year. The following year, she and her siblings decided to be taken to another boarding school so they could stay together. They went to Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, a school that dates to the 1870s and currently is the oldest, continuously operated boarding school for Native American students in the United States.

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“Boarding school was made to be more vocational,” said Smith, whose parents both met at Chemawa Indian School. “It was not to prepare them for college. My mom was trained to be a maid basically, and my dad did construction work. My dad helped build the Space Needle. My mom was working for a lawyer and a doctor couple, she helped raise their child.”

Curriculums within Indian boarding schools changed throughout the decades. It began with an emphasis on agriculture from 1879 to 1910, vocational education from 1910 to 1960, academia from 1960 to 1990, and reform and college preparation in the 1990s. Cultural programming generally was limited until the 1960s, when many tribes began to oversee the school, according to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

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'I still spoke Navajo'

Determined to strip the Native identity away from Native children, the students were forbidden to speak their own language. Today, the ramifications to this are evident with the decline in fluent Navajo speakers.

Ernest Dick from Rough Rock stood next to Haaland and Newland and said he wished he could tell his story of his time in a Rough Rock boarding school to them in Navajo.

“You lose the meaning in Navajo to English, it makes it hard,” said Dick, a former Navajo language and culture teacher. “I went to school with my sister. They said once we were in the building that's it, my parents didn't have control. It was very uncomfortable. When you talked in Navajo they washed your mouth out with yellow soap with a brush. But I still spoke Navajo.”

Dick disliked the food that was given. He referred to peas as gah bi chąąʼ (rabbit poop). Milk was usually spoiled, but they still had to drink it, Dick remembered. Inside the dorms where he lived the conditions were bad, with no running water, and no restroom, forcing students to use buckets. The treatment and abuse the students endured was bad, but what made it worse was those who were inflicting this treatment were Navajo workers.

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Smith also touched on this in her testimony about her own time at a boarding school in Teec Nos Pos, where the dorm maid had been abusive and would humiliate and shame Smith.

“They are our people,” said Dick. “Who trained them to treat us like that? It was real cruel.”

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty also attended and listened to the stories, and after each person spoke, she went over to greet them. Crotty’s grandmother is a product of boarding schools, a personal story that Crotty didn't really want to elaborate on. She said as a family they have been focused on helping her grandmother heal from the experience.

"We are making sure we are creating safe spaces, because most of these survivors are our parents or grandparents," said Crotty. "And they were always shamed and blamed not to say anything. When we talk about intergenerational trauma we have to dissect it."

Crotty's mom, well known Navajo quilter Susan Hudson, has used her artistry through quilt making to tell about the boarding school experiences of her mom, Crotty's grandmother. One of the quilts on the topic currently can be viewed at the Heard Museum's "Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit. As a Navajo lawmaker, Crotty can use her position to address the issue and figure out how she can change policy, she said.

After the Navajo people endured being rounded up, taken prisoner and forced to march to Bosque Redondo in what is known as the Long Walk, they were held captive in an internment camp. After four years, the prisoners were set free after they signed the Treaty of 1868. The treaty mandated that Navajo children between the ages 6 and 16 would be sent to school. It also stated that for every 30 children, a teacher and schoolhouse would furnished and the teacher would "reside among the Indians" to teach English education.

"My great grandfather came back from the Long Walk," said Willie. "When they were coming back they thought they were going home. But they separated the children from their family at Fort Wingate, and immediately took the children, and my great grandpa went. He thought he was going to go home. But he said it was a lie, 'we didn't get to go home. We didn't get to celebrate. We didn't even go through cleansing ceremonies.' These are some of things that happened and that is when the legacy of boarding school started."

(Video) Thousands of Kids Died in Residential Schools, Now They're Being Found

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips toarlyssa.becenti@arizonarepublic.com.

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What was the abuse at Native American boarding schools? ›

Students were forced to cut their hair, change their names, stop speaking their Native languages, convert to Christianity, and endure abusive disciplinary measures like solitary confinement. While many children returned to their families, more than 180 children died while attending the school.

What is the reason of the parents send their children to boarding school? ›

Many parents choose boarding schools because of their history and proven track record of providing an excellent all-round education with good prospects of achieving a place at a top university.

What were some of the positive outcomes of the boarding schools? ›

Seven Benefits of Boarding School
  • Challenging Academics. ...
  • Peer Learning. ...
  • Smaller Class Sizes. ...
  • Personal Growth. ...
  • A Learning-Conducive Atmosphere. ...
  • Advanced Co-curricular Activities. ...
  • Social Maturity. ...
  • Experience Boarding School Benefits at Hotchkiss.

How does boarding school affect kids? ›

Many people with boarding school syndrome will show some or all the following symptoms and traits: Problems with anger, depression, or anxiety. Failure to sustain relationships and difficulties with emotional intimacy. Fear of abandonment and/or separation anxiety.

What type of abuse was common at the boarding schools? ›

Sexual and physical abuse as well as exploitation were commonplace at Native American boarding schools, survivors told a House subcommittee on Thursday.

What would happen if Native American parents refused to send their children to boarding schools? ›

Cultural Genocide

Parents who refused to send their children to the schools could be legally imprisoned and deprived of resources such as food and clothing which were scarce on reservations. Three of the 25 Indian boarding schools run by the U.S. government were in California.

Is it a good idea to send your child to boarding school? ›

Boarding schools worldwide have proven to provide an excellent education to students who wish to be accepted into top-tier universities. It takes a village to raise a child and a boarding school offers opportunities, experiences, and mentors to give your child the best possible tools to succeed in life.

What is the youngest age for boarding school USA? ›

It all depends on when your child is ready, but here in the U.S., the most common entry points for boarding school are 9th and 10th grades, so students are between the ages of 14 and 16. Many schools offer the option of a post-graduate year for 18 or 19-year-olds.

Why is boarding school more important than day school? ›

Children Learn Discipline & Punctuality

This is the first reason why most parents prefer boarding school over day school. Boarding schools teach punctuality and inculcate discipline in students. These schools follow a timetable for every activity students carry out throughout the day.

Does boarding school help with discipline? ›

Effective School Discipline Practices are a Main Benefit of Boarding Schools. One of the reasons many families consider boarding school for their students is the benefit of a disciplined environment.

Is boarding school good for mental health? ›

The boarding environment also gives boarders an extra sense of belonging which is important for our young people. A sense of belonging protects them against mental health issues, improves learning, and produces happier, more relaxed, and adaptable people.

What is a negative of boarding school? ›

Boarding life can become stressful with daily classes and routine life. Apart from that, the pressure of parents' expectations and strict regulations forces the children to forget the things they love. Sometimes they also suffer from bullying without no one to support them.

How do you recover from boarding school syndrome? ›

If you are an ex-boarder suffering the effects of Boarding School Syndrome, finding the right therapist to talk through your boarding school issues is important. All good therapy is based on a strong therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist.

Is boarding school good for kids with ADHD? ›

The traditional classroom setting isn't for everyone, and that's okay! Students diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often thrive in the more supportive and diverse academic environment of boarding school.

How were native children treated in boarding schools? ›

At boarding schools, Indian children were separated from their families and cultural ways for long periods, sometimes four or more years. The children were forced to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing. They had to give up their meaningful Native names and take English ones.

What happened to Native American children sent to boarding schools? ›

Tens of thousands of Native American children were removed from their communities and forced to attend boarding schools where they were compelled to change their names, they were starved and whipped, and made to do manual labor between 1819 and 1969, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Interior found.

How were children at residential schools punished for breaking rules? ›

Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll.

What were parents told if their child died while at residential school? ›

Bodies of children were not returned to families, and parents rarely learned the circumstances of a child's death. Often, the only death notification would be to send the child's name to the Indian Agent at his or her home community.

Why did Indian parents let their kids go to residential schools? ›

One of the colonial motivations for putting children in Residential Schools was the misconception that Indigenous parents were unfit and unable to care for their children. Indigenous people were viewed as drunkards, thieves, lazy, selfish, and emotionally uncaring, among other horrible traits.

Are they trying to overturn Indian Child Welfare Act? ›

A group of non-Native foster parents, Republican states and conservative groups are seeking to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 to prevent the breakup of Native families. The US Supreme Court heard arguments in the case last week. “ICWA doesn't supplant or erase the best interest of the child.

Are boarding schools better than day school? ›

For a child's overall education, boarding schools are considerably superior to day schools. Because the school has entire custody of the children, and their parents are only seen behind the curtain. Due to a shortage of time, traditional day schools are unable to address all of these needs of parents and kids.

At what age can I send my son to boarding school? ›

So, you need to send your child to a boarding school as early as possible. In this article, you will learn why researchers and even parents agree that 8 to 13 years is the most appropriate age for children to start their boarding school education.

Is boarding or day school better? ›

Day school advantages

Saves money on normal child expenses (covered by boarding fees). Overall tuition is significantly lower (for schools that offer both day and boarding, day tuition is about half that of boarding). Frees family from dealing with transportation to school and activities.

How were natives treated in boarding schools? ›

At boarding schools, Indian children were separated from their families and cultural ways for long periods, sometimes four or more years. The children were forced to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing. They had to give up their meaningful Native names and take English ones.

What was the Indian boarding school controversy? ›

The sexual abuse of indigenous children in boarding schools was perpetrated by the administrators of these programs. Teachers, nuns, and priests performed these acts upon their students. Children were touched and molested to be used as pleasure by these mentors who were supposed to educate them.

What were the effects of Native American boarding schools? ›

Under the pretense of helping devastated Indian Nations, boarding schools created places of assimilation, forcing children to attend and sometimes resorting to what would now be called kidnapping. Many of these children died from homesickness, working accidents, uncontrolled diseases and ill-planned escape attempts.

What was the Indian school controversy? ›

Native American children at the U.S.'s 408 federal Indian boarding schools suffered whippings, sexual abuse, manual labor and severe malnourishment between 1819 and 1969 as part of the American government's campaign to compel their assimilation, according to a report released Wednesday by the Interior Department.

What was the punishment in Indian boarding schools? ›

Federal Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.

How many Native children were sent to boarding schools? ›

Intro to Boarding School History

Though we don't know how many children were taken in total, by 1900 there were 20,000 children in Indian boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled.

How did indigenous families resist boarding schools? ›

One of the ways Indians resisted was that parents refused to give their children to government officials, instead having them hide by playing a “hide and seek” game so they would not be taken away to the schools by the Indian agents.


1. How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems | NYT News
(The New York Times)
2. Survivors of U S Indian boarding school systems speak out about abuse, mistreatment
(CGTN America)
3. Secty of Interior Deb Haaland shares how gov't forcibly took Native American children from families
(The Dean Obeidallah Show)
4. What Native American children endured at one Missouri boarding school
(PBS NewsHour)
5. One of the Most Dangerous Schools in America | A Hidden America with Diane Sawyer (World News)
(ABC News)
6. Crimes against children at residential school: The truth about St. Anne's - The Fifth Estate
(The Fifth Estate)
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