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

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.

Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty greets one of the people at a listening session in Many Farms. Her grandmother had attended a boarding school, the focus of the day's discussions.
Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty greets one of the people at a listening session in Many Farms. Her grandmother had attended a boarding school, the focus of the day's discussions.

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.

“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.”

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Forced to leave home for boarding school

Eleanor Smith attended a boarding school in Teec Nos Pos and her parents met at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. She came to Many Farms on Sunday to tell her story to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Eleanor Smith attended a boarding school in Teec Nos Pos and her parents met at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. She came to Many Farms on Sunday to tell her story to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

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.

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.”

Eleanor Smith tells the story of her mother's time at a boarding school, during the Road to Healing tour at Many Farms on the Navajo Nation.
Eleanor Smith tells the story of her mother's time at a boarding school, during the Road to Healing tour at Many Farms on the Navajo Nation.

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.

“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.

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."

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

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Deb Haaland hears stories of mistreatment at boardingg schools