James Nells leads the Riverside Indian School colorguard during the first stop on The Road to Healing tour at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on Saturday July 9, 2022. Credit: Nick Oxford | The Imprint

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

The questions now being asked of American Indian survivors of boarding schools, foster care, and adoption are expansive. They may require deep introspection. And they might hurt to answer: 

“Would you say that you have experienced intergenerational trauma?”

“What are the races of people in the foster family that you lived with for the longest time?” 

“How often did your parent show affection, such as by hugging you or saying ‘I love you?’” 

The Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the First Nations Repatriation Institute, and the University of Minnesota are collaborating on a first-of-its-kind survey asking those difficult questions. Researchers have compiled close to 1,000 accounts, submitted on paper and online, for the Child Removal in Native Communities survey, which concludes September 11. 

Take the survey here

To participate anonymously in the Child Removal in Native Communities survey, click here: https://umn.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_01w9CignFk8dF2Z

They seek to document not only experiences of government-imposed abuses, but the wisdom of survivors and their descendants who’ve found ways to thrive. Up to 122 questions can be answered, including whether religious faith has ever been helpful for healing and whether respondents have sought therapy.

 Participants’ names will be kept anonymous.

“These questions are not just data,” said Samuel Torres, the deputy chief executive officer for the Boarding School Healing Coalition. “These questions are people’s lives.”

Samuel Torres of the Boarding School Healing Coalition. Credit: Las Vegas Event Photography.

Torres, who is Mexica and Nahua, is preparing for the task ahead with a small team of researchers. They are meticulously reading each answer about the intergenerational impacts of U.S. family separation policies that began in 1801 and continue in today’s foster care system. In Minnesota, where the research is based, American Indian children are 16 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes, according to state data

One boarding school and foster care survivor from Oklahoma, Oney Roubedeaux, who is Ponca and Otoe-Missouria, said she would gladly participate in the survey if it meant her story could inspire healing for another child. Her twin grandchildren are in the Pawnee County foster care system. She has never met them.

Roubedeaux, 58, is the youngest of 17 children. When her mother died, she said, her father struggled to raise the children on his own. She and her brother were sent to foster care, and between 1971 and 1973 attended Concho Boarding School and Seneca Indian School. After leaving Seneca, she recounted, she was moved among 10 foster homes, most of which were non-Native families. In the first five, she described sexual abuse and other physical mistreatment, malnourishment, forced labor, and neglect.

“I know how it is to be a slave, and to be getting the carcass of a turkey and that’s all you get for Thanksgiving to eat outside,” Roubedeaux said. “So if this survey would help one child from my story, I’d be grateful—one child to survive and pick themselves back up and say, ‘I can do anything.’”

A first grade yearbook photo of Oney Roubedeaux at the Concho Indian Boarding School in 1970 and a current photo. Credit: Oney Roubedeaux

Boarding school survivors increasingly speak out

There are growing efforts across the United States to document these experiences that are inextricable to the nation’s history. Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member from New Mexico, became the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet member last year. And her early initiatives as secretary of the Interior Department include a 102-page report which provides a first-ever government accounting of the 408 government-backed Indian boarding schools nationwide. 

At U.S. boarding schools where American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children were sent for more than a century, there are at least 53 marked and unmarked burial grounds. Those findings echo recent discoveries in Canada. Federal archives show the U.S. government “coerced, induced, or compelled Indian children to enter the Federal Indian boarding school system,” and their treatment included “solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing.”

In July, Secretary Haaland launched a national Road to Healing Tour, telling survivors gathered in Caddo County, Oklahoma: “I am with you on this journey, and I am here to listen. I will listen with you, I will grieve with you, I will weep with you and I will feel your pain.”

Secretary of The Interior Deb Haaland embraces boarding school survivor Delores Twohatched during the first stop on The Road to Healing tour at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on Saturday July 9, 2022. Credit: Nick Oxford | The Imprint

Meanwhile, last year two Democratic members of Congress—Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas—introduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. The proposed legislation would create a five-year commission that would hold public hearings with boarding school survivors to document the impacts from “linguistic termination” to “spiritual violence.” It would also explore ways to prevent the ongoing removal of Native children under “modern-day assimilation practices carried out by State social service departments, foster care agencies, and adoption services.” 

The survey underway in Minnesota is significant in large part because it has been designed and led by Indigenous researchers who are mindful of the well-founded distrust of Western research methods. And it draws on Native ways of learning and transmitting knowledge, said Sandy White Hawk, board president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. 

“That system can really cloud our process, which is why I’m really grateful we can do it,” she said.

White Hawk helped launch the survey after examining the limited research on boarding school survivor stories, and links to foster care and adoption practices today.

She has close ties to the legacy of federal Indian boarding schools: a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, she was taken from her relatives at 18 months old and sent to a white missionary’s home more than 400 miles from her reservation. She is now the founder and director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, which helps reunite Indigenous families.

“We’re not far enough away from those experiences—which went well into the ’60s—to say, ‘Well, that is the past,’” White Hawk said. “It’s very much the present.”

Seeking healing while documenting lived experiences

The Minnesota researchers acknowledge that filling out the survey is a heavy task. 

The introduction advises participants that certain sections include questions about unwanted haircuts, forced sterilization, and physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. 

The questions are expected to take between 15 and 45 minutes to complete. Still, the researchers caution that “participating or sharing about trauma may trigger secondary trauma or post-traumatic stress responses.” 

But they offer reassurance as well, stating that there are no right or wrong answers, and that those being surveyed can stop at any time, skip questions, and seek counseling or traditional healing as needed along the way. They include a list of supportive resources and counseling opportunities.

The researchers said they initially questioned the length and extensive nature of the survey. But White Hawk concluded that every single question was necessary, including inquiries about what can help heal the pain. 

“If we’re going to ask them to reveal all the things that happened to them, why wouldn’t we ask the follow-up question of what could have helped?” White Hawk asked.

Sandy White Hawk Credit: Photo courtesy of Sandy White Hawk.

While tribal nations are well aware of the lasting impacts of forced family separations, documenting them through research could help prevent future child removals and bolster support for the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, Torres said. The landmark 1978 federal law that requires extra protective measures be taken before Native American children are separated from their families and tribes is now threatened by a case before the U.S. Supreme Court–Brackeen v. Haaland. The case centers on a white, evangelical Texas couple who argue that ICWA provisions discriminated against them when they tried to adopt a Navajo toddler from foster care. 

The survey team says its findings could be used to guide healthcare and social services providers, tribal leaders, and policymakers. Carolyn Liebler, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who is working with Torres and White Hawk on the project, said it will also provide a vital historical context for understanding struggles within Indian families who come into contact with child welfare authorities today. 

“It’s currently, ‘This mother’s neglecting her child because she’s an alcoholic,’” Liebler said. “As opposed to, ‘This mother has unprocessed trauma—generational trauma, personal trauma–caused by systemic generational issues.”’

Once completed, the study won’t be buried in the depths of an academic journal, its authors say. Instead, the public will be able to access the findings through a website that will feature the testimony of survivors and songs for healing.

After the survey phase wraps up, the research team will hold its Wopila on September 11, a Lakota ceremony that will acknowledge spiritual ancestors for bringing the team along thus far. They will thank the respondents before delving into the roughly 1,000 shared histories, which Torres called “gifts that have been offered to us.” 

After holding healing circles for many years, White Hawk said she’s witnessed the power of releasing secrets that accompany trauma. The survey’s approach is similar.

“Trauma is about secrets,” she said. “Telling someone and releasing that is powerful.”

Nancy Marie Spears is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and the Indigenous children and families reporter for The Imprint. She can be reached at nspears@imprintnews.org.

Farrah Mina is a Minnesota-based reporter covering child welfare. Before joining The Imprint, Farrah worked as a data reporter at the Kansas City Star. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota...