U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland sit at a table in the gymnasium of Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland sit at a table at the front of the Sherman Indian High School gymnasium for Friday's "Road to Healing" event. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland brought the “Road to Healing” tour to Southern California Friday morning to hear from Native American boarding school survivors and their descendants.

“Federal Indian boarding school policies have impacted every single indigenous person I know,” she said. “Some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry this painful legacy in our hearts, regardless of who we are and how we got here. 

“My ancestors, and many of yours endure the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” she continued. “This is the first time in history that the United States Cabinet Secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma. That is not lost on me, and I’m determined to use my position for the good of the people.”

Erica Ben talks to the audience as U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland listen. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

Haaland launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in 2021 in an effort to recognize the legacy of boarding school policies and address the intergenerational impacts those policies have had on Native American tribes.

“Through the road to healing, our goal is to create opportunities for people to share their stories, but also to help connect communities with trauma-informed support and to facilitate the collection of a permanent oral history,” she said.

The event was held at Riverside’s Sherman Indian High School, which originally opened in 1892 as the Perris Indian School in Perris, California, before relocating to Riverside in 1903 as The Sherman Institute. The school is now operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Sherman is a place now where Indian students are provided a space to live and study as Indian people and where they can excel and go on to contribute to their families and tribes to communities and the nation,” Newland said.

Erica Ben, an alumna of Sherman Indian High School, said her time at the school helped introduce her to other Native cultures while providing her with the education her father pushed her to get.

“He would always tell us how important education was, and the sacrifice he had to make by not coming,” she said.

Ben said her father was taken to Fort Sill Indian School in Oklahoma where he was forbidden from speaking his native language. But her father did not stay in the boarding school system, fleeing from the school with his brother to return to the reservation after their father died.

“He didn’t graduate from high school, but not getting that education meant he was able to speak and practice his language,” she said. “And he was able to pass that on to us, you know, his children.”

Sallie Thurman asked the department to look into Pierre Boarding School in South Dakota where three of her grandmother’s siblings attended in the early 1930s. In talking with her great uncle, she learned of two tragic deaths he experienced while at the school.

“One was his cousin, who was shook to death from her hair by another student,” she said. “I don’t think any punishment or consequences ever happened.”

The other was his sister, who was in the hospital room next door to where he was when she died.

“He didn’t know she was in there because they separated the siblings,” Thurman said. “And she died, but they didn’t tell him about it until after.”

For many in the audience, the trauma their parents and grandparents endured while at these schools, though rarely spoken about, was evident in the way they were raised.

“I used to stay with [my grandmother] every summer,” Kiete Vielle said. “And she was really disciplined in the way she ran her house, cleanliness, cooking, and we had to go to bed at 7:30.

“And after we took a bath, we would come to her room and say the rosary,” he continued. “And I never knew where this came from, until I started growing up and finding out my grandma was disciplined that way.”

Friday’s event was the eighth listening event on Haaland’s yearlong listening tour across the country.

“I think this is a very powerful experience for people to begin to surface the things that were just very personal and private so that we have a reckoning with our history,” Representative Mark Takano (D-Calif.-39) said. “I often say that we can’t really think about reconciliation until we reckon, and so this is the process of reckoning with our history.”

Newland said the department’s next step is identifying marked and unmarked burial sites across the boarding school system and determining the total amount of federal money and support that sustained an education system that was used primarily to strip Native American students of their cultures.

“It’s just that we’re trying to survive,” Vielle said. “Our people have always been in survival mode, and finally, we have somebody in the office that will listen to us.”

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Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.