Indian boarding school survivors share stories of sexual abuse, trauma – The Washington Post – The Washington Post

Forced by the federal government to attend the schools, Native American children were sexually assaulted, beaten and emotionally abused
They were stripped of their clothes and scrubbed with lye soap. Matrons cut their long hair. Speaking their tribal language could lead to a beating.
Taken from their homes on reservations, Native American children — some as young as 5 — were forced to attend Indian boarding schools as part of an effort by the federal government to wipe out their languages and culture and assimilate them into White society.
For nearly 100 years, from the late 1870s until 1969, the U.S. government, often in partnership with churches, religious orders and missionary groups, operated and supported more than 400 Indian boarding schools in 37 states, according to the first investigation into the schools by the U.S. Interior Department. Government officials and experts estimate that tens of thousands of Native children attended the schools over several generations, though no one knows the exact number. Thousands are believed to have died at the schools. Many others were sexually assaulted, physically abused or emotionally traumatized.
Now a reckoning is underway as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe whose grandparents were stolen from their homes and sent to boarding schools, tours the country to expose the devastating legacy of the schools on families and tribes. At the same time, a major nonprofit group, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, is collecting tens of thousands of documents on Indian boarding schools to build an interactive, digital archive that is expected to launch later this year.
“We made it through this Indian holocaust,” said Deborah Parker, chief executive of the Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribes. “We made it to a place right now where we can finally talk about this pain and find enough strength to just stand up and say that our lives mattered and the lives of our children mattered.”
The Washington Post talked to four survivors of Indian boarding schools who attended the institutions in the late 1940s and 1950s and are now in their 70s and 80s. Some have never spoken publicly about their experiences, which left them deeply scarred. One 86-year-old Kiowa recounted being sodomized by another student at age 10. A 72-year-old Sioux described being snatched from her first-grade classroom by two strangers in suits and driven to a South Dakota boarding school, with no chance to say goodbye to her family. An Alaska Native man said he spent six years being referred to by a number instead of his tribal name. A Chippewa woman remembers watching her mother cry as she climbed aboard a green bus bound for a school 100 miles from her home. She was 7 years old.
Here are their stories:
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, North Dakota
The large dark-green bus pulled up to the elementary school on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation in Belcourt, N.D., in 1954.
At 7 years old, Ramona Klein reluctantly climbed aboard. She took a window seat on the side of the bus where she could see her mother standing outside, holding two of her younger siblings by the hand. Her mother wiped away tears.
Klein didn’t fully understand she was headed to the Fort Totten Indian boarding school, 100 miles from her home. Looking back now, she said she believes her mother didn’t want to send her and her seven siblings away but didn’t have any other options.
Living in a small house with no electricity and no running water on the reservation, her parents grew flax and had a small herd of cattle, but nearly lost what little they had as they tried to care for one of her brothers who’d undergone a botched surgery for a broken arm. When she was 10, her father died of a heart attack, leaving her mother with eight children younger than 16.
“There just weren’t any resources to take care of us,” said Klein, a retired educator and mother of two who now serves on the Healing Coalition’s board.
At Fort Totten, Klein and the other kids on the bus were taken into a laundry room, where she was told to sit on a high stool.
“One of the first things they did was cut my long hair that was down my back,” Klein said. With black combs dipped in kerosene, a matron brushed her hair to kill head lice, even though she had none.
“I remember watching my hair fall to the floor,” Klein said, noting that she got the nickname “Butch” because her hair was cut so short.
Her daily routine started at 6 a.m. with making her bunk bed. The covers had to be tight enough so a coin bounced off them. If not, she’d have to redo it. She then had to do “details,” or chores such as cleaning floors and bathrooms.
For meals, she and other young girls were marched to the cafeteria. Boys ate on one side; girls on the other. They weren’t allowed to talk to one another, and she rarely saw her siblings.
Most mornings, they were served burnt toast. Lunch and dinner were often barley soup or mush, a mix of cornmeal and milk. Klein was always hungry, she said. Sometimes, she would smuggle a milk carton and a packet of sugar from the cafeteria, hide it on the windowsill of her room and wait until lights were turned off. She’d pull it out when it was nearly frozen, shake it up and add the sugar.
“That was my first homemade ice cream,” she said.
Only the bigger girls in the upstairs dorm were allowed to watch television, so the younger girls were often bored. “We had no playground with swings, or a slide, a teeter-totter or merry-go-round,” she said. “There were no puzzles, toys or books.”
Klein invented her own games. At night, she’d take a mattress and a blanket, wake up her classmates and pull them around on it in the hallways as if it were a sled. Sometimes they’d ride the mattress down the stairs.
“We’d make sounds and be laughing, and the matron would get up and come,” Klein said. She’d bring out a broom and what was called the “board of education,” a paddle with holes at one end. Klein said she’d be told to kneel on the broom handle and then she’d be whacked several times with the paddle.
“She would hit me so bad, I’d have bruises on me. … All on my back and buttocks,” Klein said. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re not going to get the best of me,’ and I refused to cry.”
In class, she said, teachers repeatedly told her “Indians can’t learn” or “Indians aren’t smart.” Often, she was ordered to sit in the corner of the classroom and wear a dunce hat, she said.
And then there was the abuse. For two of the four years Klein attended Fort Totten, she said, she was sexually molested by the adult son of one of the school’s matrons — the term used to describe boarding school employees, regardless of whether they were women or men. She still has flashbacks from the sound of keys on a chain, because he would take his mother’s keys and let himself into the girls’ dorm and inappropriately touch her at night while she was supposed to be sleeping.
“He’d have those keys and I could hear them jingling,” she said. “I’d smell that Brylcreem hair cream of his and then … his hands seemed so big.
“No child should ever be touched in the way he touched me.”
She never told her mother about it, didn’t discuss it with anyone until years later in a support and counseling group.
“It’s a lifelong scar,” Klein said. “It’s a lifelong wound.”
Kiowa, Oklahoma
Donald Neconie was 10 when an older student at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Okla., began attacking him.
The 17-year-old — nicknamed “The Big Guy” — crept into his bunk bed in a dorm room.
“I felt a hand on my mouth, and the next thing I know, he took off my underclothes and molested me,” Neconie said. It happened “almost every night” for years to him and at least three other boys, Neconie said.
“He’d turn us over and bury our heads and do this,” he said.
One night after drinking a bottle of stolen vodka, Neconie and the other boys got up the courage to tell a matron about the abuse. She said she’d “look into it,” Neconie recalled. But later that day, the local sheriff came and got him and the other victims. He took them to a jail, where they were forced to stay the night.
“We ratted on him, and we became the prisoners,” Neconie said. The next day, Neconie and the other boys were taken back to the boarding school in handcuffs.
“That jailing was to teach us and others a lesson — ‘keep your mouth shut,’” Neconie said.
As far as Neconie knows, “The Big Guy” was never charged.
For decades, Neconie used the internet to track the man. In the mid-1990s, he saw him in person at a powwow in Maryland. The man sat at a drum, and the two made eye contact.
“He knew me,” Neconie recalled. “He glanced at me and then never looked at me again.”
His attacker has since died, but the nightmares remain for Neconie.
“Nobody ever talked to us. They never gave us any counseling,” he said. “We held it inside of us, all welled up. Nothing can make it go away.”
It was only about a year ago that he told his wife of 56 years and family about what happened to him at the boarding school, just seven miles from his childhood home.
At age 8, he was sent to Riverside — one of the country’s oldest and largest off-reservation boarding schools — and stayed until he was nearly 20, going home only twice. He describes it as “12 years of hell.”
On occasion, his parents came to visit, but they had to stay in their car with the windows rolled down while he stood on the curb to talk to them. No gifts or money could be given.
“We couldn’t go toward them,” Neconie said. “We couldn’t go near them.”
Three of his 10 siblings also went to boarding schools, and he was the only one who graduated. He served in the Marines, then worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a tribal claims office clerk and later as a specialist for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When he and his wife were raising their three kids, Neconie said, he was strict with them: “If they got out of line, they’d get a whooping.” He said he inflicted on them “the pain I’d brought from that boarding school. … I wasn’t always the kindest to my kids. I regret doing that to them.”
When one of Neconie’s sons heard that Haaland, the nation’s first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, was making a trip to Riverside last summer to listen to boarding school survivors, he encouraged his father to go. At first, Neconie wasn’t interested. He’d been back only once and cried as he watched crews tear down an old dorm where he’d once lived with other Kiowas and boys from the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
Eventually, he changed his mind and testified at the school, which remains open but now champions Indian culture.
“It may be good now, but it wasn’t back then,” Neconie told Haaland. “We were sodomized. … And people knew that was going on and did nothing to stop it.”
He believes that Indian boarding school survivors should get not just an apology but reparations, like those given to Japanese Americans for their incarceration during World War II.
“I didn’t think I was an animal,” Neconie said, “but they treated us like we were. … Nothing could ever make me forget — or forgive — what they did to us.”
Iñupiaq, Alaska
The social workers arrived at the family’s one-room shack in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1955 and gave Jim LaBelle’s mom a stark choice: Give up her two boys for adoption or send them to an Indian boarding school.
At the time, she was newly widowed and struggling to feed her sons, who sometimes scavenged with her for something to eat at the edge of the local dump. She was also an alcoholic, LaBelle said.
LaBelle, then 8, and his younger brother, then 6, were sent to the Wrangell Institute, about 700 miles from their home. His mother was in tears, he said, and “kept apologizing.”
“She said, ‘You’re going to have to go away for a while,’” he said. “We got that it was some kind of school, but we didn’t know where or how far or how long we’d be there.” LaBelle stayed at Wrangell for six years and then spent four years at a second boarding school in Alaska.
He remembers, on that first night at Wrangell, how one boy started quietly crying and then others joined him. “You’d hear some crying out ‘Mama, mama.’ But no mama came.”
LaBelle, whose Iñupiaq name is Aqpaiuq, which means “fast runner,” was fluent in his language when he left home, but after he saw other students being slapped and shaken when they were given commands in English they couldn’t understand, he learned to keep quiet.
Like the other children, he was assigned a number every year he was at Wrangell, and can still recall them: 71, 68, 57, 52, 51, 64. “One boy who didn’t know any English when he came,” LaBelle said, “thought his number was his name.”
During his first few weeks at the boarding school, LaBelle said, he and many of his bunkmates got sick from the salted meats and cans of processed vegetables and powdered milk they were served instead of their traditional diets of walrus, seal, moose, salmon, wild potatoes, celery and blackberries. Often, he said, they were given huge portions of food and forced to clean their plates.
“Our stomachs would be cramping. We’d have headaches and vomit and soil the beds and our clothes,” he said. “The matrons would get pissed off and beat us for getting sick.”
The kids were disciplined for talking back, not paying attention, not following orders, or giving the wrong answers in class. He’d get demerits for no reason, he remembers.
“I didn’t even know what I’d done wrong sometimes,” he said, “and I’d be punished.”
The punishment he feared most was known as “going through the gantlet.” Kids were forced to undress, then run up and down between other kids who stood in two lines with belts.
“The matrons would tell the other kids to use them on us,” he said. “There’d be 15 or 20 kids on each side hitting us as we ran.”
On occasion, LaBelle said, he was told to go to the blackboard at the front of a classroom to do a math problem. He said he was so scared of getting it wrong, he froze. The teacher, he said, would yell at him, “You’re wasting my time.”
“He’d give me these stares of anger, meanness and just disgust,” LaBelle said.
He was told by some matrons that his mom was evil for practicing her traditional Native ways of singing, drumming and dancing. When he went home in the summers, he said, he would be so ashamed of being seen in public with his mom that he’d ignore her.
LaBelle, a Navy veteran and father of four who worked in the oil and gas industry and for state government, became a professor of Native studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He now serves as president of the Healing Coalition, which is pushing Congress to create a commission to investigate the way the schools operated, examine church and government records of the schools and identify where children were buried.
He will always live with what he endured at boarding school, he said. He watched as a 12-year-old friend was punched so hard by a matron for “mouthing off” that he was left unconscious and had to be taken to a hospital.
“When he came back, his mouth and jaw were wired shut,” LaBelle remembered, “and he had to eat and drink through a straw.” The matron was never reprimanded. “It was a reminder,” LaBelle said, “what they could get away with.”
“I developed this fantasy of getting back at him for years,” he said of the matron. Later, he would look at obituaries to see if the matron had died. “I never forgot him or his face,” LaBelle said, “or what he did to my friend.”
Standing Rock Sioux, South Dakota
The two men in black suits and ties arrived with no warning.
Dora Brought Plenty, orphaned at 4 when her mother was murdered, had been living with her grandparents on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota and attending a nearby day school. Then one day in 1956, the two White men showed up in her classroom and spoke to her teacher.
“She pointed at me,” remembered Brought Plenty, whose mother was from the Standing Rock Sioux Turtle Clan and also Canadian Assiniboine and whose father was Black and of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. “They came toward me, grabbed me by my little arms, jerked me up out from the desk, out the door, to a black car.”
She was 6½ years old and too terrified to ask who they were or where they were taking her. She had no chance to say goodbye to her grandparents, she said, and never saw her grandfather again. The men drove her to the Pierre Indian School, nearly 200 miles from her home.
Once there, she was told to climb up on a stool. A matron “jerked my head back and cut off my braids,” Brought Plenty said. “I remember seeing them hit the floor.”
When she asked for her clothes, a matron told her, “We’re going to teach you.” She took her to a dark basement in just her undershirt and panties and left. Hours passed before another matron came, took her to her dorm, threw a nightgown at her and ordered her to bed.
The next day, she got the school’s uniform — a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar, pedal pusher pants and saddle shoes. She was taken to church and asked if she was Catholic or Episcopal. When she said she thought they were the same, they put a metal cross in her hand, told her she’d be Episcopal and said she should “go pray for forgiveness for who you are.”
Brought Plenty became known by her assigned number — 199. When she whispered in Lakota to another classmate, a teacher told her to put out her hands and smacked her knuckles with a ruler. Another frequent punishment: She was taken to a hallway, where she was told to kneel and stretch out her arms with her palms up. Bricks were put in each hand and she was left in that position for hours.
“They beat me so bad at times, threatening that when they finished with me,” she said, “I’d never remember a word of my Indian language.”
She thought about running away during her 4½ years at Pierre, which is now tribally run with classes on Native culture and history. Escape seemed impossible, she said, because she didn’t know what direction her home was in.
In second grade, one of her friends, Lucy, did run away with another girl. They were caught and brought back. After they returned, a matron rang a bell. She ordered all the girls in Brought Plenty’s dorm to get out of bed. Get hand towels, she told them, and go to the washroom. Wet the towel with hot water, don’t wring it out, and stick open safety pins in it. Form two lines, she told them, and as the runaways walked by naked, smack them with the hot towels and pins.
“When Lucy got to me she looked at me, eye-to-eye,” Brought Plenty said. “I couldn’t hit her. She was my friend. I just stared at her.” A matron grabbed Brought Plenty, ripped off her nightgown and pushed her into the gantlet. The other girls hit her.
“It was horrible,” Brought Plenty said. “I think I was in shock.”
She didn’t see Lucy again.
In class, Brought Plenty would draw trees, the Black Hills and animals as a way, she said, “to get my mind away.” But sometimes she’d be caught, and her creations would be crumpled up and thrown away. Then her artwork impressed one teacher, who asked her to draw pictures of fish and other animals that were used in science classes.
“I figured out what they liked and realized I wasn’t going to get hit if I did what they liked,” she said. “I quickly realized at a young age that my art could save me.”
She was chosen for piano lessons, but had to fight with other girls to practice at the one piano, Brought Plenty said. All of them scrubbed floors, sometimes with bleach and a toothbrush, and wiped down walls or shined chrome counters, earning “spare time” to play jacks or basketball or to go skating. Brought Plenty stayed at Pierre until she was in the fifth grade.
For years, Brought Plenty, who went on to work as an HIV educator, teach art and library sciences at elementary schools in the Dallas area and raise four children, struggled with bouts of depression. Sometimes she punished herself by isolating from her family. She stopped showering — a flashback to years at Pierre when matrons stood in the shower area. “They’d jerk back the curtains,” she said, “to look at you and call you names.”
“They’d call us ‘you damn dirty Indians’ and only allow us to shower once a week,” she recalled.
Brought Plenty tried to get help. At 13, she went to a doctor and told him she wanted to hurt herself. “He told me, ‘That’s nonsense,’” she recalled. At 16, she started cutting herself — a coping habit that continued off and on into her late 50s. At 21, a psychiatrist prescribed Valium that left her feeling “zoned out.” She said she attempted suicide three times.
About eight months ago, Brought Plenty started to draw and paint to show her experiences at boarding school. In one of her pictures, a young Indian girl runs as a nun chases her. The girl is her, and she’s wearing a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar just like the one Brought Plenty wore at boarding school.
“Artwork,” she said, “allows me to heal. It’s my freedom.”
Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Robert Miller. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.

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