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Native Americans speak out about the lasting horrors of Indian boarding schools

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous audio version of this story incorrectly refers to Secretary Haaland’s tribal affiliation as Navajo. She is Pueblo of Laguna.]


Last spring, the U.S. government took a major step toward owning up to a shameful chapter in our nation's history. The Interior Department released the results of its investigation into the federal Indian boarding school system. The scathing report detailed abuse and misconduct that took place at hundreds of schools across 37 states, or then-territories, for more than a century. As part of the process of healing and accountability, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is on a listening tour to hear these stories firsthand to allow Native people to tell their own stories in their own way, many for the first time. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo attended two of these sessions in Arizona.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: It's 9 in the morning, about 20 miles south of Phoenix, in a high school gymnasium. The gym is silent as the room full of people shift in their seats. No one wants to be the first one to speak. Finally, a tall woman with dark hair stands up and walks to the microphone. She starts in English, but introduces herself in O’odham.

APRIL IGNACIO: Madam Secretary and Assistant Secretary Newland, (speaking O'odham). They call me April Ignacio, and I am providing testimony on behalf of my family.

CARRILLO: Many people, like Ignacio, brought written testimony that was pages long so they didn't forget anything.

IGNACIO: I am a citizen of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and my family in particular has five generations of boarding school attendees and survivors.

CARRILLO: That's exactly the kind of thing Secretary Haaland flew over 2,000 miles to hear.

DEB HAALAND: I want you all to know that I'm here with you on this journey. I will listen. I will grieve with you. I will weep alongside you. And I will feel the pain that you feel.

CARRILLO: Haaland is Pueblo of Laguna and the first Indigenous woman to serve in her position. She's also personally invested in this work. Her grandparents attended federal boarding schools. Ignacio went on to tell her own grandparents' experiences of abuse and neglect and the lasting impacts of it on her family. As rows of tribal citizens sat facing the secretary, some said her background and understanding made them feel empowered to tell their stories for the first time. And they felt validated to hear others talking about similar experiences. June Marie Wauneka drove over 400 miles to attend the second stop of the weekend, deep in the Navajo Nation.

JUNE MARIE WAUNEKA: From here to Window Rock, Ariz., is about seven hours. So that's how far it is. But the - it's quite a ways down there.

CARRILLO: She first attended one of the government-run boarding schools in the 1950s, at just 6 years old.

WAUNEKA: I fought to live each day or do whatever I went through to be able to make it through. And I have scars in my heart and in my mind.

CARRILLO: After the meeting, she choked up as she recalled the moment she got to tell the secretary her story.

WAUNEKA: I thanked her for the opportunity to speak. It brought me peace to know that it was finally spoken out.

CARRILLO: Wauneka said that opportunity was worth the drive and the gas money. She said she felt it was her duty to pay it forward.

WAUNEKA: I look at my grandkids now and how small they are, and I thought, that's how small I was when I was treated like that. And I thought, boy, I'm so glad I made it through those things. And so I found peace talking about what happened to me.

CARRILLO: And an added bonus? A selfie with Secretary Haaland.

WAUNEKA: I had my picture taken with her. I was - oh, it was an honor.

CARRILLO: Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News, Many Farms, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.

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