In a high school gymnasium about 20 miles south of Phoenix, a room full of people shift in their seats. The space is silent, with every small creak echoing in the high rafters of the building. No one wants to be the first one to speak.
Finally, a tall woman with dark hair stands up and walks to the microphone. She begins in English, but introduces herself in Tohono O'odham.
"They call me April Ignacio and I am providing testimony on behalf of my family," she says. In her hands she holds a stack of papers that she reads from.
Ignacio is one of hundreds of people in attendance, from small children to elderly tribal citizens, who have come here to speak to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The public forum at the Gila Crossing Community School is Haaland's fourth stop on the Road to Healing tour. For months, she and her staff have been traveling the country, listening to survivors and their families tell of the abuse they experienced in federal Indian boarding schools.
Many people – like Ignacio – brought written testimony that was pages long, so they didn't forget anything.
"My family in particular has five generations of boarding school attendees and survivors," Ignacio says. She went on to tell of her grandparents' experiences of abuse and the lasting impacts of it on her family
That's exactly the kind of thing Haaland flew over two thousand miles to hear: "I want you all to know that I'm here with you on this journey," she promised. "I will listen. I will agree with you. I will weep alongside you and I will feel the pain that you feel."
Haaland is Pueblo of Laguna, and the first Indigenous woman to serve in her position. She's also personally invested in this work – her grandparents attended federal boarding schools.
In the past few years, the Department of the Interior has taken the unprecedented step of acknowledging the role its boarding schools played in the long-running federal effort to erase Native languages and cultures. Children in this system were forced to cut their hair, only speak English, practice certain religions and, ultimately, assimilate into mainstream or white culture. Punishments were harsh, and many children never made it home.
Those who did bore deep scars that Haaland is hoping this process will help to heal.
As rows of tribal citizens sat facing the Secretary, some said her background and understanding made them feel empowered to tell their stories for the first time. June Marie Holiday Wauneka drove over 400 miles – or about seven hours – to attend the second stop of the weekend, deep in the Navajo Nation.
Wauneka attended one of the government-run boarding schools in the 1950s at just 6 years old.
Before she left home, her cousin gave her some advice: "You're gonna get picked on. He says, 'I want you to learn how to fight.' "
She had to learn – battling both the students who bullied her, and the teachers who harassed and hit her.
"I fought to live each day," she says. "And I have scars in my heart and in my mind."
After the meeting, she choked up as she recalled the moment she got to tell Haaland her story.
"I thanked her for the opportunity to speak," she said. "And it brought me peace to know that it was finally spoken out."
Wauneka said that opportunity was worth the long drive and the gas money. She said she felt it was her duty to speak out, as a way of paying it forward to the next generation. She now has grown children of her own, and grandchildren to look after.
Her grandkids, she says, are about the same age she was when she was first sent to boarding school.
"That's how small I was when I was treated like that," she said. "Boy, I'm so glad I made it through those things. And I found peace talking about what happened to me."
An added bonus? A selfie with Secretary Haaland. Wauneka smiled with pride as she talked about it: "It was an honor."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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