Thirty-one years ago when my book of poetry, The Aboriginal Sin was published by Rupert Costo, editor of the Indian Historian Press, it was one of the first books written from a first-hand perspective of the abuse heaped upon Indian children at the Catholic Indian mission boarding schools.
The reaction to the book was swift and hateful by those in denial. First by the priests at the boarding school I wrote about and second by some of the students so immersed in their Catholic faiths that they took my book as an attack upon their religious convictions rather than as an expose' of a system that caused so much damage to thousands of helpless Indian children, damage that has been repeated over and over again by the victims of the abuse.
When Kevin Gover was Assistant Secretary of the Interior he became the first high government official to ever address this blight upon the American people. He said the schools brutalized Native children "emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually," and he added, "The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country."
The priests at the mission school I attended first denied that I ever was a student there and when pressed admitted that "perhaps I was a student there for a short time." Some former students immediately came to the defense of the school administrators by saying they had spent 12 years at the school and had never seen any of the things happen that I wrote about. Denial, denial, denial. By attempting to kill the messenger, the priests and some former students hoped that my book would then fall into the pit of meaningless rhetoric.
Perhaps that would have happened if the things I wrote did not come true. Do I feel vindicated? Not really. I feel that while everyone in America was ducking this horrible chapter in America's history and hoping it would go away sight unseen, something could have been done to heal the terrible wounds of abuse that have plagued Indian country for the past 50 years.
All of the things I wrote about, and Kevin Gover elaborated upon, are the things that nearly destroyed a people and they are the things that have never been addressed either by the Catholic Church or the United States government. The state of denial has been complete.
I spoke with Lavern Beech, former editor of the weekly Sho-Ban News in Idaho last week and she brought me some news that I found to be exciting and exhilarating. She told me of the efforts of a Colorado based organization called White Bison, Inc. and of its magazine Wellbriety. Check them out at www.whitebison.org.
They are funding The Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness that will start on May 16, 2009 at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., and end on June 25 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The journey will encompass a 40-day, 6,800 mile trip that will visit 23 former and present Indian school sites. At the school sites daylong workshops are planned to share educational information about the schools and encourage open discussion in a talking circle format and they will conduct healing ceremonies involving local tribal elders and mental health professionals. You can learn more about this precedent setting journey at www.wellbrietyjourney.org.
According to their press release the Journey will focus on one of the primary causes of historical trauma among Native people: the widespread abuse of Indian children at the schools supported by the US government. While most of the 500 government and mission boarding schools have been shutdown, there is strong evidence to suggest that the disturbing patterns of physical and sexual abuse observed in Indian communities today have their roots in the abuse of children at these schools. My friends, it's been a longtime a-coming, but maybe, just maybe, something will finally be done to address this shameful and disgraceful period of American history.
I will be doing an interview on Australian radio on Monday to talk about this issue, one that also impacted the lives of thousands of Aboriginal children in Australia, and once again I commend the Australians for taking a shameful time in their history and putting it on the table for discussion and hopefully, for gainful solutions. It is high time the United States of America and the different religious denominations in America did likewise.
I cannot speak too highly of the individual efforts of the Laverne Beech, Don Coyhis and Kateri Vergez for making the Wellbriety Journey a happening. I urge every Native American that has ever felt the repercussions of the boarding school experience to go to email@example.com and find out about the CD, The Road to Wellbriety. The word Wellbriety means both sober and well.
I hope to catch up with the Wellbriety crew on their 6,800 mile journey and to share my experiences as a Lakota elder with them and their students.
It is about time America and the different religious organizations that felt the only way to save the Indian children was to kill the Indian in them admitted the damage they caused to the generations that followed.
© 2009 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.