As the public now decries the unmarked graves of Indigenous children of residential and boarding schools, many Native families are thinking, “We know. Finally, they’re paying attention!” After all the work that many Native communities and intellectuals and activists have been doing, people are noticing and condemning, unlike any time before, the terror and nightmare that Native families have been living with for generations. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, a boarding school descendant, recently announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative. The initiative offers hope to affected communities, but it also raises questions about the methods and approaches of this inquiry. Stories are surging on the outcry and accusations about boarding schools, sometimes without listening to the Native survivors, families, and communities that have already been speaking out and seeking truth, healing, and reconciliation in their own ways. For many that have experienced the horrors of boarding school first-hand, and to their children, these conversations trigger trauma.
Marsha Small and I are two Native American scholars and descendants of boarding school survivors who are dedicated to serving their peoples by amplifying the voices of those who attended Indian boarding schools.
In my work, I address how Diné identity has changed among boarding school students through the twentieth century, and I trace the physical affronts, illness, abuse, and punishment, as well as survivor skills and creativity that students used to overcome their challenges at boarding schools.
Marsha Small, or O tata’veenova’e (Blue Tipi Woman of the Northern Cheyenne/Tsististah), has used geo-referencing systems such as ground penetrating radar (GPR) and geospatial information systems (GIS) to locate unknown and unmarked burial sites of the Chemawa Indian School Cemetery. Listen to my conversation with Sarah Newcomb (Tsimshian) and Marsha Small for the Native Circles podcast.
We are part of a growing collaboration who address the intergenerational impacts of what historian David Wallace Adams defined as “education for extinction,” or schooling set to eradicate Indigenous sovereignty and being in the empire of the United States. We call for the Indigenizing of truth seeking and telling on the histories of boarding schools. Healing derives from self-determination and community-based approaches that center on living Indigenous communities and boarding school survivors and their families. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has spearheaded this movement for truth and healing in the United States (https://boardingschoolhealing.org/).
As early as 1928, the Meriam Report uncovered many of the harms of Indian boarding schools, such that the federal government increasingly redirected their attention towards public schools for Native children. However, some boarding schools have remained open into the twenty-first century, though they have changed many of their most nefarious policies, many even embracing the teaching of Native American cultures and languages. Yet, struggles over educational sovereignty ensue as Native youth fight to protect their right to life and water at home.
The One Mind Youth Movement, for example, are Cheyenne River Sioux young leaders who are fighting to sustain Indigenous “outreach, community, and education” (https://www.omym.org/). Some Indigenous youth are fighting to wear ancestral regalia at their graduations such as Christian Titman of the Pit River Tribe who sued his school district in California for not allowing him to wear an eagle feather in his graduation cap in 2015.
The Navajo Nation is an example of a tribal nation that is attempting to reaffirm their authority over the education in public schools on their reservation in pending legal cases such as in Window Rock Unified School District v. Reeves, et al. (9th circuit, 2017).
Boarding school histories trigger guilt, both in those involved, as well as those looking on. Many now ask, what more could we have done to save the lives of these children? What should we do now, as we continue to learn more of the violence, loss, and injustices that such schools orchestrated and harbored?
I once asked my father why he never taught me Diné bizaad, Navajo language, and he told me, “You never asked.” But I also know other Diné parents who no longer talk to their children in Navajo, and they openly admit that they thought that their language would hurt their prospects in the future. The schools drilled in them that Indigenous languages and cultures were impediments and vestiges of a losing and dying people. They believed that the trajectory of their children excluded Indigenous values, including sovereignty and peoplehood for which many of their ancestors sacrificed their lives. A relentless ailment that burdens the survivors of boarding schools and their posterity is the paradox that we will either forever belong to a race of victims, or we can reject our Indigeneity and side with “the winning team.” History is often framed as a game of winners and losers, but there are never winners in such histories of violence and rupture.
Indian boarding school truth-seekers must pursue healing, not in a linear but cyclical ongoing way, and recognize our Indigenous ancestors made the most of difficult situations. They survived with the hope that their descendants would someday thrive. Uncovering buried truths will reopen the wounds that never fully healed, and the healing will be painful. This is not a process that can be rushed, or ripped apart, and it must involve those who are affected by the legacies of Indian boarding schools. Each grave uncovered represents a missing child, a stolen ancestor, and a family that never came to be.
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.
These are hard times, I know. But universities and education are getting hit especially hard, and this includes our wonderful university presses. My first book, The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century, was published in 2018 by the University Press of Kansas and we (the authors of the books published by the press) were recently told that our press might be closing down due to all the financial challenges. This being said, I am going to spread the word out there and encourage people now to support knowledge, education, learning, and our future.
Also it is not too late to save the press, and I am on a mission along with many missions that I am sure you will hear more about by being connected to me- to support education and community through generations with consideration of the many generations ahead and of our ancestors who paved the way for us. This mission includes getting the word out there in support of saving the University Press of Kansas.
When I was a college student, one of the first books that I read cover to cover was published by this press, titled Education for Extinction that revealed the hard and traumatic history of Indian boarding school experiences. I was inspired then to write a book myself one day, which I finally did with the same press and with an endorsement by that same author, David Wallace Adams, who wrote the groundbreaking book (that one I read back in college).
Please help any way that you can whether it’s to buy my book or another great book from the University Press of Kansas and share that you did this and encourage others to support and spread the word to save the university press and support our scholarly presses. You can even just share my posts about it on social media (I have Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). Please let me know if you have any questions about this.
Thank you for your consideration and all your support. This work would have never been done without many of you, my family and friends, whether it was the tender kindness, good laughs, taking care of me as a child into adulthood, and some of you for sharing your story with me, especially my dad, aunties, uncles, cousins, and kin of their boarding school days. Dad and Mom traveled with me for this book. Mom came to an archive caring for my baby at the time, and Dad would sit on many meetings with me to help interpret in Navajo and shared his childhood stories of boarding school (some of which I hear some of my siblings retelling which I am grateful to know). Remember always.
Check out this video I am sharing of a precious memory of when I opened my first book in print for the first time with family- it gives a glimpse into how precious this work is to me and my family.
UPDATE from the petition “Save University Press of Kansas!”: The University Press of Kansas will remain open! Thank you for all the support and efforts of letting the University Press of Kansas Board of Trustees and the world know that we value university presses, especially the University Press of Kansas. Remember to continue supporting education and university presses. Each of us can make a difference even in the simplest ways.
This is part of the recent press release about this good news: “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE University Press of Kansas to continue its work under the leadership of the Dean of the University of Kansas (KU) Libraries Lawrence, KS., March 19, 2021 — The University Press of Kansas Board of Trustees, which is comprised of the provosts from each of the six Kansas Regent institutions, has confirmed KU Dean of Libraries Kevin L. Smith to serve as director of the Press. Smith, a well-known authority in the field of scholarly communications, will continue his role as Dean in addition to serving as Director of the University Press of Kansas (UPK). This change will allow UPK to take advantage of publishing and scholarly alignment opportunities as well as operate in a more cost-efficient manner.”
Please sign and support this petition, BYU’s Committee on Race and Inequality Needs a Native American Representative, which serves to remind Brigham Young University (BYU) and its Academic Vice President C. Shane Reese that it is overdue to listen to and value Native American and Indigenous voices at BYU and throughout the country, particularly in higher education. BYU and residents in the area are dwelling in a space shaped by the lives, deaths, and removal of Native Americans and the occupation of their ancestral lands—specifically Utes of what is now considered the region of Provo and Utah County. A newly appointed BYU committee, directed to address issues of race and inequality, needs a representative who understands the unique challenges that Native American BYU students and community face at their university. They need someone who is recognized and respected by their tribal nation and diverse Native American and Indigenous communities for their knowledge and leadership.
“They say that they are like firemen. They know what they signed up for. They must fulfill their call for duty.” This is what Mom told me when I asked why Dad has to continue working in the clinic. We are Diné (Navajo). We come from the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan. My father is born for the Tsi’naajinii (Black Streak Wood People) clan. He is seventy years old and has been practicing medicine since the late 1970s. He is a family and community medicine physician who retired from the Indian Health Service (IHS) but has continued family medicine practice at Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation for the past several years. I used to joke that he would work until he died but now I fear that every day because of COVID-19 or Dikos Nstaaígíí-19 as we call it in Diné bizaad (the Navajo language).
November 30, 2021: “Returning Home: Diné Creative Works from the Intermountain Indian School” Book Talk with Authors Farina King, Michael Taylor, and James Swensen, Diné Studies Book Talk Series (the recording of the book talk is available on the Diné Studies Facebook page).
“Evolving Views on Race, Lineage, and the Status of Black People within the LDS Church” (comment), and “New Directions and Questions for American Indian and Mormon Histories” (roundtable), Mormon History Association Annual Conference, Park City, Utah, June 2021 (visit https://mormonhistoryassociation.org/).
“Loyal Countrywomen: Insights from Two Cherokee National Female Seminary Alumnae Doctors” (keynote invited speaker), 170th Meeting of the Descendants of the Cherokee Seminarians, Northeastern State University, May 7, 2021.
“Boarding School Histories & Tuition Waiver,” Day of Dialogue (virtual symposium), Fort Lewis College, April 20, 2021.
“Diné Stories of Disease and Healing Through Generations to the COVID-19 Pandemic” (invited panelist), “Identities, Rights, Histories: An Indigenous Studies Seminar,” The John Morton Center for North American Studies, University of Turku, March 29, 2021.
“The Fluidity of Power,” This Land is Herland, a series of programs on women’s activism in Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Historical Society and the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, August 13, 2020. This program considers how women in early Oklahoma found ways to wield power. Topics and speakers for the evening were: “An ‘Intrepid Pioneer Leader’: The A-Suffrage Gendered Activism of Kate Barnard,” by Dr. Sunu Kodumthara, Southwestern Oklahoma State University; “‘My Heart Had Been Burdened for the Orphaned and Homeless Children’: Religious Imperative and Maternalism in the Work of Mattie Mallory,” by Dr. Heather Clemmer, Southern Nazarene University; and “A ‘Loyal Countrywoman’: Rachel Caroline Eaton, Alumna of the Cherokee National Female Seminary,” by Dr. Farina King, Northeastern State University.
“Global Event: Native American Women Historical Trailblazers,” Girl Scouts, Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, August 9, 2020.
Return Home Intermountain exhibit closing reception and event, Navajo Nation Museum, March 6, 2020.
2020 Phi Alpha Theta/Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians Conference, Norman, February 28-29, 2020.
“A ‘Loyal Countrywoman’: Rachel Caroline Eaton, Alumna of the Cherokee National Female Seminary,” Works-In-Progress Seminar (invited presenter), December 6, 2019, Helmerich Center for American Research and Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
54th Conference of the Mormon History Association, “Isolation and Integration,” June 6-9, 2019, Salt Lake City, Utah. Donate to the MHA Graduate Student and International Scholar Fund through the MHA website.
“Roundtable: Indigenous and ‘Lamanite’ Identities in the Twentieth Century,” June 7, 2019, MHA, Salt Lake City.
“Returning Home: The Art and Poetry of Intermountain Indian School, 1951-1984” public presentation with Farina King and Michael Taylor, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School, May 17, 2019, Monument Valley, Utah.
“Learning My Heritage Language as a Scholar: Connecting with Community through Diné Bizaad” (invited keynote talk), April 13, 2019, Visions Conference, Northeastern State University.
“Working with the ‘Missing Pieces’ John Hair Cultural Center and Museum Exhibit Design,” Wednesday, April 10, 2-2:50 pm, UC 223, Farina King with Ernestine Berry and NSU Student Presenters Midge Dellinger, Lindsey Chapman, Dillon Morris, and Larry Carney.
“Generations of Women Healers: Reflections from a Life Career in American Indian Health,” Friday, April 12, 1-1:50 pm, UC 224, with Phillip L. Smith.
“Indigenous Women at Texas Christian University: Presence, Absence, and Portrayal,” Friday, April 12, 3-3:50 pm, UC 222, with Scott Langston, Shara Kanerahtiiostha Francis-Herne, Farina King, Theresa Gaul, and Jessica Martinez.
“When the young Diné boy Hopi-Hopi ran away from the Santa Fe Indian Boarding School in the early years of the twentieth century, he carried with him no paper map to guide his way home. Rather, he used knowledge of the region, of the stars, and of the Southwest’s ecology instilled in him from before infancy to help navigate over rivers, through mountains, and across deserts. In The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century (University of Kansas Press, 2018), Farina King argues that education and the creation of ‘thick’ cultural knowledge played, and continues to play, a central role in the survival of Diné culture. King, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, takes a unique methodological approach in telling the story of Diné education and knowledge. The Earth Memory Compass is, in King’s words, an ‘autoethnography,’ weaving her personal story of cultural discovery and family history into a larger narrative of Indigenous boarding school experiences and deep learning within families and other sites of indigenous education. The book tracks four of the six sacred directions in Diné culture, East, South, West, and North, each connected with a sacred mountain in the Southwest, and in doing so tells a rich and complicated history of how the Diné people resisted and sometimes embraced American education while never losing their own much older forms of knowledge in the process.”
November 10, 2018, Session on “Institutionalizing Emergency: Boarding Schools and the Crises of Colonialism,”conference theme “States of Emergence,” American Studies Association annual meeting, Atlanta.
November 2, 2018, Session on “Remembering and Memorializing American Indian Education,” The History of Education Society annual meeting, Hotel Albuquerque, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
October 27, 2018, Session on “Understanding Intergenerational Trauma for Indigenous Communities,” 21st Diné Studies Conference theme of “150 Years Later: Acting and Advocating to Empower Our Own Researchers and Healers and Visionaries and Thinkers and Planners and Leaders and Scientists and… Neeznádiin dóo’ąą ashdladiin nááhaigo: Nihidine’é nida’ałkaahígíí, nahałáhí, dahaniihii dóó nitsékeesii dóó naha’áii dóó éé’deitįįhii, doozhóódgóó ba’ahódlí dóó ílį́įgo hiilna’,” Diné College, Tsaile, Arizona.
October 19, 2018, Session on “Indigenizing Cityscapes since the Twentieth Century,” Conference theme of “Re-imagining Race and Ethnicity in the West,” Western History Association annual meeting, San Antonio, Texas.
October 10-12, 2018, Conference theme of “Oral History in Our Challenging Times,” Oral History Association annual meeting, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Guests: Farina King, PhD, Assistant Professor of History, Northeastern State University; Nizhone Meza, JD, Attorney; Tommy Rock, PhD, Environmental Scientist and Founder of Rock Environmental Consulting; Aldean Ketchum, Musician, Flute Builder
Mother Earth’s sacred nature is a common thread through the spiritual beliefs of Native American tribes across the country. We saw reverence for the land unite diverse indigenous communities at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and in the effort to preserve Bears Ears in Utah. We explore what it is that so deeply binds America’s original inhabitants to the land.
For more about the panel, “Bears Ears: Indigenous Perspectives from San Juan,” please see this blog piece on the Juvenile Instructor (click on hyperlink).
Guest: Farina King, PhD, Assistant Professor, History, Northeastern State University and member of the Navajo Nation
“Monuments of all sorts are a focal point for debate in America today: whether it’s Confederate War memorials, statues of conquering explorers like Columbus or natural landscapes like the Bears Ears National Monument President Trump recently scaled back significantly.
A monument is really about us saying ‘this is a place, a memory, a culture, a history we want to preserve.’ But given the diversity of views and complexity of America’s history, is it any wonder we’re having trouble agreeing on our monuments? Let’s have a look at this from the perspective of America’s indigenous communities.”
Indian Mascot Cases panel before showing of Kenn and John Little’s film “More Than a Word,” November 17, 2017, American Indian Heritage Month, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. See the full listing of NSU American Indian Heritage Month events on the Center for Tribal Studies website.