Indigenous Peoples' Day balances celebration, recognition

·8 min read

Oct. 13—Jasi Swick, a Lakota with more than 70 relatives who survived or died at Indian boarding schools, discovered at age 36 that her mother had survived a year at a residential facility as a child — bringing into sharp focus for Swick the broad impact of systematic forced assimilation on generations of Native Americans.

"It was revealed to me that my own mother attended boarding school. It wasn't something that we shared, like a lot of families and a lot of Native homes, just dealing with the trauma," Swick said. "Her upbringing is the reason that laws are now in place to protect my children, and I carry that with me and I've taught my children this."

Swick facilitated a boarding school community healing webinar discussion Oct. 8 with boarding school survivors, descendants and educators as part of the Southern Oregon University boarding school healing project.

Swick's mother, Cheryl Miller Swick Hernandez, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation before she and her sister were sent to a Catholic-run boarding school around first or second grade.

"It was a really, really bad experience," Miller Swick Hernandez said. "At first, when the parents were taking us there, I wasn't scared because I had my sister. But when we got there, they took her."

She had never spoken about the painful experience to anyone before, including her children, she shared during the webinar, releasing tears with a story she had kept to herself for decades.

"It was really hard to be taken away from the family and to be put somewhere where you weren't allowed to speak your language," she said. "They cut our hair off because they thought we were dirty — because we were 'dirty little Indians,' is what they called us. They would take those lice combs and rip them through our hair, and then they made us say all these prayers that a lot of us didn't understand because we weren't raised that way."

Miller Swick Hernandez said her life on the reservation with her grandparents was full of laughter and play — despite living in poverty, everyone around her shared similar circumstances.

"We weren't sad children until we were taken to the boarding school," she said.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a memo acknowledging the lasting impact of boarding schools on generations of Native American families, and the need for a detailed investigation into more than 140 years of federal policies that attempted to erase Indigenous peoples' cultural identity.

"The recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada's Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School should prompt us to reflect on past federal policies to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples in the U.S.," the memo said.

The U.S. enacted laws and policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools from 1819, when the Indian Civilization Act was enacted, through the 1960s.

"During that time, the purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly removing them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities," where their native languages and beliefs were suppressed, the memo said.

Many students endured repeated injury and abuse, and some who died were buried in unmarked graves. The Department of the Interior vowed to undertake an investigation of the overall loss of life and lasting consequences of the Indian boarding school program, and identify possible student burial sites — to be submitted as a written report by April 1, 2022.

"Over the course of the program, thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed in federal boarding schools across the country. Many who survived the ordeal returned home changed in unimaginable ways, and their experiences still resonate across the generations," the memo said.

Monday marked the first official recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day following the passage in Oregon of House Bill 2526, which established the second Monday in October as a day recognizing "that Native people on this land created self-sufficient, thriving and successful communities for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers," according to a press release from the Oregon House Majority Office.

The holiday combines celebration of the Indigenous people who shape the state's past and present with recognition of "the true and painful history of hundreds of years of colonial violence that brought diseases, warfare, genocide and forced assimilation," the release said.

Mayor Julie Akins proclaimed Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples' Day for the city of Ashland during the Oct. 5 City Council meeting.

Ashland City Council approved a resolution in 2017 dedicating the second Monday in October to the holiday "as an opportunity for the community to reflect on the ongoing struggles of Indigenous People of this land, to celebrate the thriving cultures and values of the Indigenous Peoples of our region, and to stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples everywhere."

The proclamation acknowledges that Ashland was built on the homelands of the Takelma, Shasta and Klamath Basin people.

For Belinda Brown, Indigenous Peoples' Day honors the ecological knowledge that aboriginal people have gathered since time immemorial, which has reemerged as critical to contemporary wildfire management.

Brown is an enrolled member of the Kosealekte Band of the Ajumawi-Atsuge Nation, also known as the Pit River Tribe. As the tribal partnership director for Lomakatsi Restoration Project, Brown focuses on intergovernmental affairs coordination, outreach and engagement.

Current projects include partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde treating 300 acres of their Noble Oaks Preserve, ongoing Almeda fire recovery and a collaborative effort to secure a cultural, beneficial and traditional use designation to protect Klamath River water and salmon.

A 12-year stewardship agreement between Lomakatsi and the Klamath Tribes "elevates" the tribal voice, provides job-skills training and employment opportunities, and combines cutting-edge forestry with aboriginal practices, Brown said.

A crew of seven youth from the Klamath Tribes spent five weeks last summer obtaining certifications in chainsaw operation, basic firefighting and cultural resource management while thinning, piling and burning a section of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Four of the youth fought fires this year, including two who fought the Bootleg fire, Brown said.

Brown revisited the site Aug. 17 — the Bootleg fire continued to burn, but the treated unit withstood the blaze, leaving standing aspens and old pines.

"It just shows that the treatment for the land there works, and we need to do more of it," Brown said. "The fire was still going on Aug. 17, but it was just snaking around doing what it's supposed to do: burning all the underbrush and understory."

"Everywhere we go, we're just gently trying to marry that Indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge with Western science, and trying to put the tribes in front to lead us back to the ancient knowledge and wisdom that kept our land safer, clear of debris, healthier and actually kept our people healthier," she said.

Multifaceted cultural uses of the land, including animal harvest, fishing, root gathering and weaving baskets, to name a few, are all connected to aboriginal fire use in some way, Brown said, through an understanding of the interwoven balance of sacred natural elements that aboriginal people are "commissioned" to steward.

New fire ecology of the 1960s spurred fire-suppressive land management strategies counter to Indigenous knowledge.

"We have that commission to take care of our land and our water and speak for those that don't have a voice," she said. "That's the fish and the wildlife and the generations coming, and then in honor of the ancestors and generations that went before us."

For Brown, Indigenous Peoples' Day also honors strides taken in recent years, such as passage of Senate Bill 13 in 2017 focused on tribal history and land acknowledgment.

"What it means for myself is our people have an ability to tell their own story [and] our people have an ability to bring their knowledge forward and not be ashamed of it," she said. "I think that aboriginal knowledge is going to be crucial to the next steps of healing for our people."

Native communities ache from multigenerational trauma and the loss of language, history and lifestyle — Indigenous Peoples' Day "flips the script," she said, allowing space for a new narrative that honors the way aboriginal people cared for the Earth, strengthens the tribal voice and acknowledges the symptoms of multigenerational trauma, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, teen pregnancy and recidivism.

The holiday honors the knowledge that offers sustainable examples of how to eat, live, treat each other, consume resources and strengthen communities, while shedding light on the truth that the U.S. is built upon the blood and bones of aboriginal people slaughtered for land and gold, Brown said.

"I truly believe when our people are healed, and when our nations are healed, and when our land is healed, that that's going to be bubbling out on the visitors," Brown said. "No matter what color or suit you're walking around in, we all need to be responsible for what we're doing to the Earth, because the Earth is our mother and we're not treating her like she's our mother."

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