The Road to Healing: The power of tribal communities

In the summer of 2021, a month after the world was awakened by the discovery of 215 remains of innocent school children at the Kamloops Industrial Residential School in British Columbia, I attended a community event in my hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The four-hour event included a potluck dinner, jingle-dress dancing and a talking circle.

The talking circle was filled with honest dialogue and tears. One young woman spoke about how she spent an afternoon with the dry hives because she was so distraught to know innocent First Nations children died while attending the Kamloops school. My biggest takeaway from that event was that a new generation of young Native Americans discovered the truths of Indian boarding schools that we older Native Americans already knew for decades.

As a Native American journalist, I sometimes have difficulty reporting things I experience alongside my tribal community. As a Potawatomi, I share the pain and grief. That was the case on this day in 2021. I did not report on the event at the time. I couldn’t.

This event took place a full year before the beginning of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Road to Healing tour began in Anadarko, Oklahoma in July 2022. Since then, there have been 11 Road to Healing listening sessions, including one yesterday in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

At all of the Road to Healing sessions, Native elders have testified about their experiences while attending Indian boarding schools, including incidences of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

I am always amazed at the raw candor of those making their oral testimonies at these listening sessions. The elders recount atrocities that happened decades ago in vivid details as if they occurred a week or two ago. It is as if they have played a tape recorder in their minds over and over for years and are finally allowed to hit the play button and turn up the volume.

Often the testimonies are spoken by the elders who are visibly shaking with tears running down their cheeks.

At the Road to Healing event on Oct. 29, Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana Chairman Marshall Pierite was one of several tribal leaders in attendance.

"It was very important to hear the truth of what happened in these boarding schools. I am very proud of Secretary Haaland having these hearings because this is what will begin the healing process," Pierite told Native News Online.

I have seen that healing in action. A week prior, after a day of testimonies, a healing totem pole was raised on the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Some 500 Alaska Native people gathered to observe the raising of the healing totem pole. The raising was a community event utilizing the hands of many, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), who assisted in blessing the pole, and Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community), who helped carry it.

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