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Leaders want New York Tribes to have voice in development of Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report
Congressman Brian Higgins is leading a bipartisan letter signed by the entire New York House of Representatives delegation calling on U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to participate in a “talking and healing circle” with New York Native American Tribes. His team said, “As the Department of the Interior continues its investigation of Federal Indian Boarding Schools, this delegation letter encourages the inclusion of the Thomas Indian School, a Native American boarding school in Western New York, in the initiative. The effort is supported by the Seneca Nation of Indians, Oneida Indian Nation and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.”
The Indian Civilization Act of 1819 enacted laws and policies that established and supported Indian boarding schools across the country. Higgins’ team said, “The schools forcefully assimilated indigenous children, which took them away from their families and suppressed their identities, languages and beliefs. From 1855-1957, the Thomas Indian School operated on the Cattaraugus Territory in Irving, New York, for the primary purpose of educating and assimilating Native children in the state of New York. While the school was managed and funded by the state, there are multiple, documented instances of the school receiving federal support.”
In June 2021 Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation and the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate and document the lasting consequences of Indian boarding schools. The initiative was prompted by the discovery of more than 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The finding reopened wounds of many Native Nations people in New York, who also have close relations to the First Nations in Canada.
In a letter, the New York House Delegation writes, “We understand that the Department is hoping to issue a report in the coming month that describes the available historical records within the Department’s custody and how the Department can help ‘address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools….’ This is a laudable goal, but one that we do not think can happen without more input from tribal communities. We have heard from several Native communities within New York that more consultation needs to occur. For that reason, we are respectfully requesting that you hold a listening session in the State of New York with representatives from each Native Nation.”
Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels said, “The trauma inflicted on Native communities by the abhorrent treatment and abuse at Indian boarding schools is still felt in our nations to this day – by the survivors who still carry painful memories of mistreatment, and by families and communities whose lives have been shaped by what happened decades ago. Each discovery of unmarked graves at former school sites reopens the wounds in our communities. Our history as Native people has been forever shaped by what happened at the schools, whether in Canada; in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; or right here at the Thomas Indian School on our Cattaraugus Territory. The voice and experience and pain of our people, as well as our brothers and sisters from other Native Nations located in New York, need to be shared and heard. I want to thank Congressman Higgins for leading this effort, and I encourage Secretary Haaland and the Department of Interior to come and hear from us as they seek some way to help Native communities heal and move forward.”