TULSA, Okla. — The United States Secretary of Interior announced this week the government will investigate past oversight of Native American boarding schools.
Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of Native American children from various tribes were forced out of their homes and into Indian Boarding Schools.
Some of those boarding schools were out of state, many in Oklahoma. Today many of those children are still living in Oklahoma as elders in their tribal communities.
“Today I’ve gone to school and I’ve learned how to speak English because I grew up in civilized America, but my people were made to speak the Muscogee language and the government wanted to strip that from them and in essence, taking part of who they are and doing away with it,” Anne Townsend Edwards, a tribal member of the Muscogee community said.
Townsend’s mother, Elizabeth West, was about six years old when she was sent to Eufaula boarding school in the late 1940s.
“She said an ever-present attitude from the matrons that they were there to take the Indian out of them to make them assimilate into a white man society,” Townsend said.
Many school administrators operated on the idea of assimilating students into U.S. values and culture and stripping them of their native identity. That process took on different forms.
“They did cut our hair really short, if anyone had long hair it was cut,” Melissa Harjo-Moffer, a former student of one of those boarding schools said.
Harjo-Moffer was just six years old when she was taken from her family and forced to attend Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte, Oklahoma.
“When someone was caught speaking the language they were severely beaten...I’m lucky I didn’t get caught and my sister didn’t get caught, but they were out to teach us the language...force us to learn,” Harjo-Moffer said. “I remember a time when one of my… we were in line again and somebody said something in their language I don’t know if it was Choctaw, but the girl got slapped in the face by the matron.”
Today all Harjo-Moffer has left are memories, but for others, the trauma experienced at these Indian Boarding Schools changed them forever. Such was the case for Townsend’s mother.
“She didn’t teach us our language for fear of what could happen to us if we spoke the language... so as a descendant of a survivor of boarding school abuse, it’s hard to know the things that my mom went through,” Townsend said.
Townsend knows she cannot change the experiences her mother lived, but she’s determined to own and share her mother’s story to change the future for her people.
“I’m a fierce advocate for all of our Native American people and I wanted to go on record to say that we will never forget that the survival of our people from the trail of tears, the survival of people being assimilated into European culture, the survival of our people my mother from boarding school makes me want to more share the story and be a fervent, dedicated advocate for Native American people,” Townsend said.
The U.S. The Secretary of Interior said their investigation will include the compiling and reviewing of past boarding schools to identify any possible burial sites.
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