I exist because my father survived boarding school

“I did not run away from the education.”

My father, Phil Smith

In the first episode of the Native Circles podcast that I started with Sarah Newcomb, we address issues of Indigenous boarding schools. In this blog piece, I continue to reflect on the impacts of Indian boarding schools in my own family and life. These are some of my thoughts:

Yá’át’ééh, shí éí Bilagáanaa nishłí̹ dóó Kinyaa’áanii báshíshchíín. Bilagáanaa dashicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dashinálí. I just introduced myself by my clans, acknowledging my ancestors and kin as a woman of white English-American settler descent born for the Towering House and Black-Streaked Woods People of the Diné. I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the daughter of a boarding school survivor. I grew up with the stories of Indian boarding schools from my father and paternal relatives. Their stories have drawn me to understand Diné and diverse Indigenous experiences in boarding schools over generations.


I exist, because my father survived boarding school; and his mother before him survived boarding school; and her father before her survived boarding school; and his parents before him survived the Long Walk—the forced removal and concentration of Diné at Hwééłdi, “Land of the Suffering.” Because of my ancestors, my children and I have the opportunity to thrive as Diné. These thoughts really hit me recently, as I ponder how the U.S. government is finally launching a Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative following Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland’s announcement.


In my first book, The Earth Memory Compass, I share the story of how my father ran away from the Ramah Indian Boarding School. I woke up this morning crying, rethinking about my father’s story of running away, because it dawned on me that my father almost did not survive boarding school. He almost froze to death, when he ran away with another boy in the winter. I asked him if I could share this story again, and he consented to it. He told me how bullies at the school led him to run away, and he asked friends if they wanted to run away with him. Another boy decided to come with him because he wanted to go home too. On their way, they got caught in a canyon during a snow drift that almost killed them. But they were fortunately found by a rancher who saved their lives. I thought of all the stories of boarding school runaways and how some children died that same way that my father almost did—freezing to death in their attempt to return home. When I asked him why he ran away, he told me that he “did not run away from the education.”


Think of all the daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, who are family, and they never returned home or they passed away soon after getting home. Think of their posterity that could have been. My father should have never had to face such struggles and hardships. This history lives on in him, me, and my children. Diné and many Native Americans and Indigenous peoples continue to fight every day for basic human rights such as access to clean water, shelter, food, healthcare, and schooling for and by their own people. The Navajo Nation is still fighting to reclaim Diné education.


My father may have survived the boarding school, but he suffered many injuries—and not just physical ones. He will never say these things, because he does not live his life as a victim. He is an active agent who has persevered much but has also lived in joy and peace. Yet, my father never taught me and my siblings Diné bizaad, so I fear that the seed of the Navajo language that he has carried may not survive. There is much that we still must do to pursue healing. And it is important to recognize that healing is not a check box to be marked off. Healing is a cyclical, ongoing journey through generations and time.


Indigenous kinship, community networks, and protocols are essential to understanding Indian boarding schools and to the ongoing journeys of healing and reconciliation. There are many different tribal nations and Indigenous communities, including some that are intertribal in urban settings. Every specific context and Indigenous community and kinship networks must be connected hand-in-hand with these initiatives to address the impacts of Indian boarding schools. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and so many others have been paving the way for this truth, healing, and reconciliation. My friends Marsha Small and Preston McBride have been working on finding and accounting for the lost boarding schoolchildren, including those in unmarked mass graves, that did not survive Indian boarding schools. We are collaborating on providing guides to Indigenous protocols based on our experiences and work.


We need to support one another in these efforts to acknowledge and learn of the truths, perspectives, and experiences of Indian boarding schools; to stop the boarding school legacy of genocidal practices and approaches that seek to eradicate Indigeneity; and to embrace and support Indigenous sovereignties, ways of knowing, and education. Value Indigenous stories, histories, and lives. Actions reveal these values. We can return the lost boarding schoolchildren home by finding them, learning about them, and supporting and connecting with their families and Indigenous communities which include boarding school survivors.


My forthcoming book that I am co-authoring with Mike Taylor and James Swensen is called Returning Home because of such interconnections of healing and reconciling Indian boarding school pasts with Indigenous communities today and their futures. Please continue the languages that the children were punished for speaking; be sure the sick, hungry, and homeless of Indigenous communities can receive care and support; teach all about Indigenous histories from Indigenous perspectives and voices; and listen to Indigenous communities, following their directions and guidance towards healing. These are only some beginning steps, but we all need to begin somewhere step by step. Boarding School history matters because Native American families have paid far too great a price to educate their children, and they continue to this day to pay that price.

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