Ten days ago, I participated in a Listening and Healing Pilgrimage event sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. The day was part of a series of events across the state of Arizona in which people were invited to listen to the stories of Native Americans who have been impacted by attendance at boarding schools across the US.

It was an intense and emotional day. I learned information I did not know, including the militaristic ambience at the schools (the first—which served as a model—was spearheaded by a Civil War veteran in 1879) and the fact that over 80% of Native children were attending boarding schools by 1926. We heard heartrending personal stories of the impact of the schools and consequent generational trauma on the lives of Native peoples today here in Arizona.

Even though I’ve been delving more deeply into these issues for several years now (and have written on this topic here and here), I realize how much I still have to learn. For example, I’d heard nothing in my prior listening about the US government’s urban relocation program. Have you? Started in the 1950s, it was another attempt to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream white culture by enticing them to move from reservations to big cities with promises of assistance with housing and employment.

Since this was happening at the same time that much governmental support of Native tribes was being terminated, many Natives made the move. In their new urban settings, they faced disorientation and homesickness as well as low-end jobs and discrimination. Many families traveled frequently between the cities and their families on the reservation, and their children were frequently shunned because they didn’t fit in and didn’t know the language “back home.”

One powerful aspect of such life-altering experiences is that family members learned not to speak about such traumas. Children at boarding schools had no counselors or compassionate adults to talk with. Older children who became dorm aides perpetuated the cycle of violence and repression they had experienced. When children “aged out” of the schools, they were simply let go without any support or infrastructure to guide them into meaningful adult lives.

There is so much to grieve here, and so much for us to keep listening and learning about (I’ll continue my reflections with a particular focus on language next week). I invite you to explore the Boarding School Healing Coalition’s website and learn more about the impact of boarding schools in your area. If you’re living in Arizona, consider attending one of the upcoming Listening events in August or September. Also, please pray for all who have been impacted in such painful and long-lasting ways.

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