San Juan County asks for investigation of Native American boarding schools

A report from Canada in the early summer of 2021 has reignited demands for investigations and justice for Indigenous students who were taken from their families to attend boarding schools throughout North America.

Recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children near boarding schools in Canada brought momentum to the issue.

In August, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that at least 12 children from the Paiute Tribe had been buried in unmarked graves outside of a school in Panguitch in neighboring Garfield County.

In June, US Department Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the department will head an initiation to detail available historical records regarding boarding school practices in the United States with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites.

At the September 7 meeting of the San Juan County Commission, commissioners unanimously passed a letter supporting Secretary Haaland’s efforts and asking for increased trauma support services for Native communities in San Juan County.

The letter states in part that “Native children living in San Juan County were among those taken from their families and forced to endure mental and physical abuse and racist practices at Indian boarding schools.”

The letter was brought to the meeting by Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, who said there are often things that go unnoticed and that this issue should be brought to light.

“I think this is something that we shouldn’t just let go. I’ve reached out to the Paiute tribe, and some of them are very, very aware and some are very supportive,” said Maryboy. “Some other commissions [are] writing a supporting letter as well.” 

At the suggestion of county attorney Kendall Laws, the letter was also sent to the US Department of Justice, as they are charged with overseeing allegations regarding the abuse of human rights.

Commissioner Bruce Adams said he found the reports from the letter alarming and encouraged residents with evidence of the abuse of Native American children to share their stories with County Attorney Kendall Laws in order for him to forward information to the US Justice Department.

“There are families that live in San Juan County that have evidence of this kind of treatment of what is being stated in this letter,” said Adams. “Certainly the Department of Justice needs to investigate and take appropriate actions.”

The letter also asks for culturally-appropriate trauma support services to be available for Native communities in San Juan County. The letter suggests the investigation will almost certainly trigger painful memories for Native residents.

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes shared some of the stories he had heard regarding Navajo families.

“Some of the students that went to boarding school, Navajos, the parents of those children had passed were just given notice. ‘He died’ or ‘she died,’” said Grayeyes. “That was the extent of it. No other information was provided by the federal government.”

Grayeyes also shared some of his own experience as a child when he attended a boarding school in Phoenix.

“I was marched like the military. I was kicked in the butt for doing something maybe out of step, maybe not left-right or right-left,” said Grayeyes. “That’s when I learned how to march. When we were in line, marching, that’s how they treated us.

“At that time, it was – you couldn’t say anything because you’re just a little tiny student versus an adult.”

Grayeyes added the underlying purpose of the boarding schools was assimilation into European culture.

“This was another weapon that they used to decrease the population of Native Americans all over,” said Grayeyes. “That’s the bottom line.”

At the meeting, the commission also heard from several supporters of the letter, including Marilyn Holly, who is the vice-president of the Red Mesa Chapter.

“I’ve heard and read of the atrocities and inhuman treatment of our children,” said Holly. “When I say ‘our,’ I mean us Diné people and other tribes are as one. We are one tribe and one people.”

The letter also asks that the departments consult with all Tribal entities that have members living in San Juan County in order to share sensitive information and honor sacred Native burial traditions.

The formation of American Indian boarding schools began in the early 1800s, with acceleration occurring in the late 1800s. The end of forced boarding schools came around the 1970s. At that time, schools were abolished or more control was given to Tribal entities to run the schools.

While some practices changed and evolved over that time, some key elements remained the same, including the boarding of students, meaning children were separated from their families.

At the schools, children were given a basic education and were stripped of their culture, often including forced religious conversions, and restrictions of wearing traditional clothes and hairstyles.

Students were also forbidden from speaking their native language in most schools. In addition, some students suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse while in the schools.

Ute and Navajo children in San Juan County were sent to numerous boarding schools throughout the West. 

Efforts to localize education for Native Students resulted in the San Juan School District opening schools on the Navajo Nation in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In addition to those schools, the Aneth Community School and the NaaTsis’Aan Community School in Navajo Mountain both operate today with funds from the Bureau of Indian Education with oversight from local Navajo communities.

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