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Naked Native Americans traumatized by abusive Arizona boarding schools

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LAVEEN VILLAGE, Ariz. (AP) — During seventh grade at Phoenix Indian School, Pershlie Ami signed up to participate in what the school called a “outing” — billed as an opportunity for Native American students to earn pocket money off campus.

These were opportunities – for cheap labor.

Ami said most people had no idea that school staff would send students to work, often doing menial tasks, for strangers whose backgrounds weren’t checked.

“A family came to pick me up and took me to their home. The task they wanted me to do was pick up dog poo from their house,” Ami said during a listening session Friday in the Gila River Indian community, just south of Phoenix, overseen by the US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The session is part of a year-long “Road to Healing” tour for victims and survivors of abuse at government-supported boarding schools. This is the fourth stop for the nation’s first and only Native American Cabinet Secretary after previous stops in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Michigan.

Ami, who is Hopi, is now 67 and lives near Laveen. She still remembers vehemently refusing to clean the house – and the fallout.

“I was severely punished for not doing what this family asked me to do. I was never allowed out for another outing,” she said. “Then I started wondering what happened to some of these kids who were coming out on these outings, that no one was ever following them.”

Ami was one of many who spoke during Haaland’s visit to Arizona before a large audience that included Governor Katie Hobbs and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego.

Several testimonies touched on issues other than abuse, such as loss of culture and language. The session took place in the multi-purpose hall of the Gila Crossing Community School, where artwork and banners reflected the heritage of the local tribe.

“This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds with Indigenous communities that federal residential school policies are meant to sever,” Haaland said ahead of the session.

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and policies to establish and support schools. The stated goal was to “civilize” Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians, which was often achieved through abusive practices.

In Arizona alone, there were 47 federal Indian boarding schools — and that number doesn’t even include religious and private institutions that received federal funding to run the schools.

“My ancestors and many of you endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now head,” Haaland said. “This is the first time in history that a United States Cabinet Secretary has come to the table with shared trauma. It’s not lost on me.

Haaland has prioritized public scrutiny of the trauma caused by these schools. In May, the Department of the Interior released a first-of-its-kind report highlighting 408 federally supported schools that stripped Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children are known to have died in some schools. But when more research is done, this stat will likely increase.

The majority of speakers were descendants of residential school survivors. They shared how their parents struggled to learn how to be good parents because they were separated from their own, some at a very young age. Ami, whose father also went to boarding school, recalled that he thought of himself as “just a stupid Indian”.

“I think he finally got rid of that image of being ‘dumb Indian,’” Ami said. “But he never stopped using that phrase in reference to himself.”

The vulnerability of the victims brought tears to all of these sessions. However, Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribes, said there was also a sense of hope.

“There is a feeling of encouragement. Yes, we can finally tell our stories and maybe we can start to heal,” Parker said. “These tears help to cleanse the emotions that we have kept inside us for sometimes generations.”

Congress plans to reintroduce legislation to establish a “truth and healing commission” at a boarding school, according to Parker. It would be similar to the one established in Canada in 2008. If passed, it would have broader scope than the Home Office’s investigation into federally run boarding schools and subpoena power.

Meanwhile, a second report is pending in the school investigation launched by Haaland, who is a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. It will focus on burial sites, the impact of schools on Indigenous communities and will also attempt to account for federal funds spent on the struggling program.

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