Sec. of Interior Haaland Hosts ‘Road to Healing’ Listening Session
February 3, 2023
On Friday, Jan. 20, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the Gila River Indian Community as part of the “Road To Healing” listening session tour at Gila Crossing Community School (GCCS). The event marks the fourth stop of a year-long tour, collecting stories and testimony from survivors and family members subjected to Federal Indian Boarding Schools.
Hundreds attended the gathering and filled the GCCS cafeteria and gymnasium to testify to the devastating impacts boarding schools played on themselves, their families, and their communities. Tissue boxes lined the ends of each row of chairs as many recalled past traumas and delivered impassioned family histories on behalf of loved ones.
“My ancestors, many of yours, endured the horrors of Indian Boarding Schools Assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” said Sec. Haaland “This is the first time in history that a United States Cabinet Secretary comes to the table with a shared trauma, that is not lost on me, and I’m determined to use my position for the good of our people.”
After launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in 2021, Sec. Haaland began the “Road the Healing” tour to take a comprehensive look at the legacy of intergenerational traumas of the past.
“Our goal is to create opportunities for people to share their stories, but also to help connect with your needs for trauma-informed support and to facilitate the collection of a permanent oral history,” said Sec. Haaland.
Boarding school survivors spoke of the horrendous conditions they faced as children that impacted them as adults. Others spoke of the intergenerational trauma they experienced with the loss of culture, language, and roles in a community. Many pointed to the devastating toll the experiences left, leading many to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and substance abuse.
Unspeakable punishments for speaking their language, changing traditional names to American names, and recalling the forced removal of Native children from their homes were common stories shared that day.
Reflecting on the day, Governor Lewis said, “It was a powerful day of healing and testimony. We as a Community are honored to host this convening…We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Sec. Haaland, bringing the boarding school era to the forefront instead of remaining relegated to the back pages of history.”
“No matter how painful and poignant these stories are, Sec. Haaland is documenting the testimony today and creating a record that will be used for a final report,” said Gov. Lewis. “And it was good to see this happen at Gila Crossing where we could accommodate everyone and provide a safe space for sharing and healing today.”
According to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report released in May 2022, 47 Federal Indian Boarding School sites have existed in Arizona.
District 5 Community Council Rep. Marlin Dixon said, “It’s something for the government to actually come out and recognize that there was something that happened back in the day that affected all of us as far as a community --not only us, but other Native communities were affected by all of this.”
Councilman Dixon then pointed to GCCS as a beacon of hope for what education institutions can look like in Native communities that vastly contrast historic boarding schools.
“On the other hand of it, we have this new school embedded with culture, embedded with all of the things that the Native people have here in this region,” said Dixon. “That’s all a part of the culture that we had or we still have today.”
Testimony that day included many young people, who didn’t attend boarding schools, but conveyed the loss of language, gender, and societal roles as a result of boarding schools. Unfortunately, these effects continue to plague younger generations and carry on to the following.
“Generational trauma is a very real and scary thing, it does trickle down from the great-grandparents to the grandparents, to the parents down to the youth,” said Miss Gila River Kelsey Martinez. “I just want to extend my prayers out to all those that came to share their stories and their parents’ stories, this [boarding school era] is something that is not talked about, but everybody needs to hear how it does affect us.”
Jr. Miss Gila River Eliana Rhodes echoed Martinez’s sentiments and said, “I think it’s a real honor having her [Haaland] come out to hear people’s stories on boarding schools because it’s such an important topic and I think it’s very brave for these people to come out and speak.”
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland joined Sec. Haaland on the tour that will last throughout the year.
And in a show of support, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, and GRIC leadership also attended the listening session.