Credit: Melvin Lee Houston, age 7. Photograph taken one year before he was sent to Saint Augustine Indian Mission School.

WARNING: This story contains detailed and disturbing information about boarding schools. If you are experiencing any form of traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, or hopelessness, help is available. Please seek out trauma resources from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Just two months ago, in May of 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried in an unmarked mass grave next to the former Kamloops Indian residential school in British Columbia. Using ground-penetrating radar technology, the remains of the children, some of whom are believed to be as young as three years old, were unearthed, leading to international calls for justice, accountability and truth telling. 

To date, the remains of over 1,100 Indigenous children have been found in Canada, catalyzing a national reckoning over the Canadian residential school system, and prompting the United States government to investigate federal boarding school policies in our own country. 

On June 22nd, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The Department of Interior (DOI) Haaland leads is charged with upholding the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribal Nations, including overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs which, along with denominations of the Christian church, was responsible for boarding school practices. It is because Indigenous people have a voice at the DOI that such an investigation is being launched.

According to Secretary Haaland, “The lasting and profound impacts of the federal government’s boarding school system have never been appropriately addressed. This attempt to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continues to manifest itself in the disparities our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and additional undocumented physiological and psychological impacts.”

While most Canadians and Americans are just now learning about the horrors of residential schools and boarding schools, Indigenous peoples have been living with the traumatic legacy of these schools for decades, one that has irreparably scarred generations.

In the United States, 367 Indian Boarding Schools existed and were operational between 1860-1978. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. No Indigenous family is untouched by the trauma of boarding school. 

Indian boarding schools were designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white society. “Kill the Indian- Save the Man” was the doctrine of forced assimilation and boarding school policy. The schools set out to destroy Indigenous kinship systems by breaking apart Indigenous families. In boarding schools, Indigenous children were stripped of all connections to their culture. They were prohibited from speaking their language, wearing traditional clothing, or practicing their spirituality. Violence and corporal punishment, along with physical, mental and sexual abuse were routinely used against children. 

My father is a boarding school survivor. At eight years old, he was sent to St. Augustine Indian Mission School in Nebraska. For most of my life, my dad never spoke about boarding school. Like many survivors he used alcohol and drugs as an escape, as a way to try and forget what had happened. 

My mother and I never even knew the name of the school dad attended until 2011. That year, a man around the same age as my dad broke the silence. I vividly remember getting a phone call from my dad. “He named the priest!” he said, his voice was quiet and shaky. “What do you mean dad?” I asked him. “Father Frank. He named him….” Someone had printed out a story that appeared in the Huffington Post exposing the abuse that had taken place at Saint Augustine. “Everything he says in there – it happened!”. In many ways this was the beginning of our relationship in understanding each other. 

Melvin Lee Houston, Mdewakanton Dakota, member of the Santee Sioux Nation.

As a child I never knew why my dad was the way he was. Why words like ‘I love you’ never came easy, why hugs or any form of physical intimacy were difficult for him, why he would disappear for weeks, months or years at a time. So many Indigenous children grew up with parents or grandparents who were boarding school survivors and never got to understand or experience love. 

“The biggest thing was there was no love. There was no connection or family. All us kids knew was being institutionalized. If you made it through you were a man, you were tough. Just like in prison, if you wanted to survive you couldn’t show weakness or emotion. There was no role model or figure there to teach us how to be native men. We had to be guarded all the time – that’s the way it is in institutions.”

In 2008 my dad lost his leg to diabetes and alcoholism. He was told by doctors that if he continued to drink, he would die in a matter of months. Sobriety from alcohol is what has allowed us to grow close, to learn what it means to be a father and daughter, to begin to express unconditional love and forgiveness. My dad is now brutally honest with me about his childhood, Saint Augustine, and his life. I have spent hours documenting and recording his stories. He agreed to share his stories with the hopes of creating greater understanding of the lasting impacts of boarding schools.

 Melvin Lee Houston in his home. Photo credit: David Joles.

I’ll never forget my first day there. I was only 8, I didn’t know the ropes or how things went there. We were getting ready for bed, and my cousin Dennis was doing something to make me laugh. I started laughing while we were in line and the priest came over and hit me so hard across the face, he dropped me. He dropped me hard.

The priest’s helper used to come into our dorm at night and leave with one of the younger boys. He would take those boys back to his living quarters. That’s where the boys were getting molested. They would come back with treats and candy. One day one of the youngest boys started crying when they came to get him saying, ‘I don’t want to go. I don’t want any more treats.’ We all knew what he meant. All the older boys stood up to that man that day, we wouldn’t let him take that little boy. But it was worse for the girls. I didn’t know how bad the girls had it until I left and heard the stories.

At Saint Augustine, it was routine to put us boys in girl’s dresses and shave our heads when we got in trouble. It was normal, a way to humiliate us, discipline us.  Dennis and I ran away so many times wearing pink dresses. We tried to escape home countless times.” 

The body count at residential and boarding schools doesn’t stop with our relatives who are physically buried on school grounds – it extends to the legacy of chronic trauma and unresolved grief passed down across generations and the survivors we later lost to suicide or addiction.

The cumulative emotional trauma that has been passed from one generation to the next is what researchers call “historical trauma.” In her research, Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota) found historical trauma “contributes to the current social pathology of high rates of suicide, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism and other social problems among American Indians.” Dr. Brave Heart observed similar features in response to other massive group trauma survivors, including Holocaust survivors and survivors of WWII Japanese internment camps, which she calls “trauma response.” 

Boarding schools destroyed the mental health of generations of Indigenous people and robbed them of the ability to learn healthy family dynamics.

“They didn’t just teach us to hate ourselves, they tried to make us hate each other. They used to make us boys beat each other. All of us would have to line up with a belt. They made us open our legs wide, and one boy at a time would crawl through, and we had to whip him with that belt as he crawled. We each had to take turns. If you were too easy hitting the other boys you would pay for it. Our crew, we called ourselves the Sioux crew, made a pact to take it easier on each other but we would hit those Winnebago boys hard.”

“Out of the crew, every one of us went to prison. We didn’t understand a lot of things after growing up in boarding school. Drugs made it so we didn’t need to understand, it took us somewhere else. We didn’t have to feel our emotions or remember anything when we were high.  I would say pretty much all of us boys went on to use hard drugs and alcohol. My uncle Dennis, he finally drank himself to death.”

Countless children never came home from boarding school, and those who did suffered irreparable and enduring trauma. It is tragic that it took the discovery of the physical bodies of children buried in unmarked graves for our government, media, and society to start listening to boarding school survivors and learn about this chapter in our history.  

This month, the remains of nine Sicangu Lakota children who died more than a century ago while attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School were returned home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe by members of the Sicangu Youth Council and a caravan of tribal members. The caravan made its way past my dad’s house in Nebraska on their journey home. 

“I heard the dogs barking and went to go check. Sure enough it was the caravan bringing the children home. I sat out there with the dogs in my wheelchair and raised my fist in the air as the line of cars drove by. It reminded me of what I am supposed to be doing with my life. It made me proud to see those young people bringing our relatives home.”

 Melvin Lee Houston in his home. Photo credit: David Joles.

As we wait for the findings of the Department of the Interior’s investigation, my thoughts are with the families who never knew what became of their children, whose children disappeared, and the survivors who are haunted by the memories of boarding school every day. The investigation brings up traumatic memories many of our elders have suppressed for decades. My dad struggles to talk about the bodies that have been found. Some days it’s simply too much to talk about, so we sit in silence or talk about sports or his dogs instead. 

“Most of us never returned from boarding school in some way. Either we ended up in the system for life, killed ourselves with drugs and alcohol, died young, or if we made it there were parts of us that would never be the same. We have to relearn all of these things, cultural roles, family roles, how to trust and express love. We have to encourage each other and support each other to learn these skills to be healthy. I hope that younger people can learn from our mistakes and understand what happened to us.”

Within my own work life at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in community health, we have touched on these childhood traumas as we recognize that Indian boarding schools continue to harm the emotional, physical, and mental health of generations of Indigenous peoples. Through the Center for Prevention, Blue Cross is supporting community-led and culturally-based solutions to address intergenerational trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and through the Health POWER initiative is proving resources to projects such as the Tribal NEAR Science and Community Wisdom Project, which works to facilitate conversations about historical trauma in tribal communities and provide culturally based models of healing. However, more needs to be done, including both greater recognition and acknowledgement in the mainstream of the atrocities perpetrated on Native children and families, and commitments to repair the damages to the communities that have lasted generations.  

Melvin Lee Houston and Sasha Houston Brown, 1995.

Let us not forget the survivors who are still with us. In order to truly address the trauma of boarding schools, we must support survivors, their families, and descendants in being able to heal. As the Department of the Interior moves forward with their investigation, it is imperative that survivors have access to trauma-informed care and culturally specific healing resources. Supporting survivors in being able to share their stories and process their trauma is a first step towards healing.  

Author Sasha Houston Brown is a  Senior Communications and Advocacy Consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Center for Prevention.