The truth about the boarding school era is told in a film through the tears of the Indian people who lived in those days and through their stories, difficult to tell and to hear because they happened to the most helpless—the children they were then.
Some of the legacy of boarding schools has also touched their own children, unwitting inheritors of their parents’ pain, as well as whole communities torn apart by intergenerational trauma that appears in teen suicide, domestic violence, and substance addiction.
Coyhis, Mohican, is still seeking an apology from President Barack Obama to Native peoples for the U.S. government’s boarding school policy, a public apology he sought in 2009 and 2010, in the latter year as part of a 7,000-mile, cross-country journey to Indian boarding schools that is the subject of the current documentary.
The film features former boarding school students from across the U.S. who recall and describe their experiences.
In the case of a woman from the Fort Totten, North Dakota area, recollection ultimately resulted in locating a dungeon-like basement area in a former boarding school. An adjoining, dark room, where male students had been kept in isolation, was reached through a trap door and was beneath a headmaster’s bathroom.
“Many elders want it (the building) razed, they want it destroyed, because of the horror stories there,” she said.
In addition to including those who remembered being beaten for speaking their own languages, having their hair shorn, and enduring sexual and physical abuse, the documentary returned repeatedly to a small gravestone near a boarding school that simply said, “Unknown.”
Some children were “not buried in their buckskin or their traditional garb, not having a feather to take them on their journey, not having the beating of the drum to take them to the other side,” one woman said. “They died, and maybe they were put in a box and maybe they weren’t.”
Another woman cried as she remembered an “older brother who went to boarding school and never came back”—the U.S. returned his body, she said.
Noting that truth must precede justice and reconciliation, the documentary reminds viewers that by 1920, 99 percent of all American Indians had been wiped out through a process of genocide that culminated in the building of some 500 boarding schools to remove Native children from their culture to assimilate them in foreign institutions.
Native leaders featured in the film include former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne chief, Albert White Hat, Lakota, and Dr. Raymond Reyes. It was produced and directed by Coyhis and Marlin Farley, Ojibwe.
Coyhis said the documentary is available in DVD form as “a give-away from White Bison Inc. and the Wellbriety Movement,” a sobriety program for Native communities. The DVD is free when shipped within the U.S. and Canada.