Conference examines Native American boarding school history

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition on Oct. 2-3 held their first-ever boarding school healing conference, called “The Spirit Survives: A National Movement Toward Healing.”

Monica McFadden, a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) worker at the Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy with a focus on racial justice, attended the conference with Dotti Seitz, who is part of Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren and a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe.

The conference was held in Carlisle, Pa., the location of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, perhaps the most famous of the Native American boarding schools in the US Boarding schools functioned as a way for the US government to take children from their homes on reservations and abusively strip them of their traditional cultures. Attendees of the conference were a mix of boarding school survivors, descendants of survivors, other Native people, and a number of Christian and white representatives of various organizations.

The two-day conference consisted of a range of panels and breakout sessions on topics such as “Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation,” “Healing through Art and Storytelling,” “Rethinking, Repurposing, and Reclaiming Indian Boarding Schools,” and “Allyship and Healing within Christian Denominations.” Some key themes of discussion were the historical trauma that still lives on from the boarding school generation, having access to records and information from boarding schools, how to approach healing from trauma, and how non-Natives can commit to hearing the truth of this often invisible history. Much of boarding school history is unknown by non-Natives, and many stories remain untold, so truth was at the center of conversations about healing.

Monica McFadden and Dotti Seitz at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition conference
Monica McFadden (left) and Dotti Seitz at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition conference. Photo courtesy of Monica McFadden.

“When we talk about truth, it’s also about getting to a place of justice,” said Vicky Stott, program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, as she spoke on the Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation panel. “One, take in the truth. [And then] two, what does that truth obligate us to do?”

Seitz said that the conference was a great experience, prompting her to think more about her own journey of healing, one she said she’s only recently begun. Seitz did not grow up on a reservation or at a boarding school, but trauma and separation are common narratives in many Native people’s experiences.

“It’s easy for people to think this history has nothing to do with them,” said McFadden. “But all of our homes and churches are on Native land, and we have to ask ourselves why that is and how we benefit from it. This history is tied up in our own, and it’s our job as the church to reckon with that.”

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