By Lincoln Wallace
Tribal leaders and scholars from across the country came to the Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Nation as part of an event to discuss reconciliation for indigenous people in Washington State.
The panel, which was held on Oct. 18 and co-hosted by Whiteswan Environmental, Northwest Indian College, Community Engagement Fellows, and Generation Forward, began with a documentary screening.
The film “Dawnland” follows the people of the Wabanaki Confederacy who inhabit Maine and various Canadian provinces. For much of the 20th century, Wabanaki children were removed from their families and placed into white boarding schools and foster care to forcibly assimilate them into “white society”.
These efforts were not limited to Maine and were widespread in the United States, including here in Washington State, and the experiences are a painful shared memory for many Lummi.
The forum was modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed in South Africa in 1995 in the wake of apartheid. Structured like a court, the TRC allowed victims of human rights violations to give statements and hearings about their experiences. Similar commissions have formed in many countries with histories of human rights violations, including the United States.
After the documentary, the panel discussion began with a guiding question: “What does reconciliation mean to indigenous leaders?”
Each of the panelists was invited to share their stories and experiences with government intervention in their lives, especially regarding tribal boarding schools and other efforts to subdue indigenous cultures.
“I had no idea about the boarding schools when I was young,” said William “Bill” James, who is the current chief of the Lummi Nation and one of the panelists at the forum. He was born on the reservation in 1944, and he said many of his elders were sent to boarding schools at the turn of the 20th century.
In the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent James to such a school after he left Ferndale High School in protest of their biased historical curriculum. When he returned to the Lummi Nation, he became a teacher at the Lummi Day School, at first teaching traditional basket weaving but then teaching the Lummi language, according to a Washington State history website, historylink.org.
“I interviewed 28 of our elders, I asked them ‘do you speak the language?’” James recalled during the panel. “They all shook their heads. They had all went to boarding schools.”
At tribal boarding schools, children were forbidden to speak their native languages and were punished for doing so. Although James’s initial focus was to preserve the language, his mission has since expanded to protection of Lummi culture as a whole.
Candice Wilson, an executive of the Lummi Nation Tribal Court and panelist, agreed that cultural preservation “is our sacred obligation but also our shared responsibility.”
Although the events of “Dawnland” had taken place on the other side of the country, Wilson said, “we know these stories all too well.”
Kenny Frost, a Ute tribal elder who advocates indigenous causes in the federal government, including native relief, cultural preservation, and tribal government, was at the panel via video conference from Colorado.
The truth and reconciliation panel listens as Kenny Frost speaks over video conference from Colorado.
He recalled that, at a state boarding school, he once spoke to a friend in Ute and was beaten by one of the school staff. When he told his grandmother, she instructed him “never to speak Ute.”
“We cannot change who we are,” he said. “We have to remain strong and true.”
Mishy Lesser, who came from Massachusetts and is the learning director for the Upstander Project that produced “Dawnland,” has studied reconciliation efforts and said that full resolution may not come for a lifetime.
“Having this conversation is not going to be easy,” she said. “Whatcom [County] has done nothing to rightfully restore the relationship with the indigenous people. We have a long way to go.”
Although the atmosphere after the panel was optimistic, many of the organizers acknowledged it was only a first step on the road to reconciliation.
“It’s a history that has to be told,” said Frost. “Even if it hurts.”