Trauma of residential schools continues to impact Native communities
By Matthew Pagels
President Pagels’ op-ed that appeared in the Buffalo News.
Truth and healing are powerful words. For generations, Native individuals, families and communities still dealing with the impacts and trauma perpetuated by Indigenous residential schools have been searching for these elusive ideals.
For more than a century, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools across the United States and Canada – including the Thomas Indian School on our Cattaraugus Territory. There, they faced physical and sexual abuse, mistreatment and hatred all in the name of a racist undertaking known as “assimilation.”
Earlier this year, the United States announced a long-overdue initiative to investigate the intergenerational trauma caused by schools that were managed and administered by the federal government. Unfortunately, the initiative does not currently examine schools, like the Thomas Indian School and several others, that were either state-run or private. Their impact, which is still felt today, must be acknowledged and investigated.
Residential schools existed for the sole purpose of erasing Indigenous people – our language, our history and our very existence – from our own lands, often by force and violence. Children were systematically robbed of their dignity and self-worth. Some survivors were left broken and jaded, forever scarred by the lasting lessons of hate, as well as physical, mental and emotional damage – if they made it home at all.
Thousands of children are known to have died at the schools. The deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, more are believed to have gone unreported. These young lives were extinguished for one reason – their heritage did not fit the mold of what white settlers believed to be appropriate. These hate crimes can never and should never be forgotten.
Native people around the world, including many Senecas, still carry the scars and terror of those days. The sounds and memories of their experience can never be silenced. Discoveries like those at former school sites in Canada earlier this year, where the remains of nearly 1,000 children were discovered in mass graves, re-open those wounds. There are almost certain to be more gruesome discoveries at other sites. Yet, the majority of non-Native individuals are unaware of this dark chapter in history.
In the years since the schools closed, some, including Canada’s government and Catholic bishops, have formally apologized for the role they played in the terror perpetuated by the residential schools. Others have made no formal acknowledgement of the human and cultural damage that occurred under their watch, preferring to remain silent and turn a blind eye to what they left in the past.
If now is truly the time for truth and healing, all boarding schools, whether federal, state or private, must be examined.
This must be done for the many children, now grown, whose pain has been carried with them throughout their life, for the children whose voices were forever silenced, and for the children of today and generations to come. They all matter.
Matthew Pagels is President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.