Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) When Sen. Susan Webber’s relative was digging outside of Browning after the family’s well ran dry, instead of water, she said her ancestor found the unmarked graves of babies.

The land they had leased to raise cattle was outside the Holy Family Mission, southeast of Browning. From 1890 to the mid-1930s, the site was one of 18 boarding schools in Montana where Indigenous youth were often taken from their homes and families to be stripped of their culture and heritage and assimilated into white society.

On the southeast side of the Blackfeet Reservation, Webber’s relatives moved on, further out, in their search for water for their cattle, she said.

“They left it. That’s how we are. We will leave. They are resting there,” she said. “But it broke my heart to know those were babies – little children – that had been buried there. Unmarked. Unknown. Who did they belong to?”

By 1926, 83% of Indigenous children were attending the schools, said Iko’tsimiskimaki “Ekoo” Beck, a member of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana, citing research done by historian David Wallace Adams.

Many of them were abused or died, according to a May 2022 Department of Interior report that identified at least 53 burial sites nationwide out of 408 federal boarding schools. The schools were often supported by the federal government with ties to the Catholic and other Christian churches.

At the request of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American told hold the position, investigators found more than 500 bodies at just 19 of the schools, and said more were being discovered as the work continues.

Webber, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, told her family’s story Wednesday as the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 6, which seeks to have Montana and Congress honor the survivors and relatives of the thousands of children who attended the schools. The resolution calls on Congress to “support and recognize the grief, pain, and hardship many Native American people suffered and still endure” as a result.

Unopposed at the hearing, the resolution also would urge Congress to designate a national day of remembrance for children who died at the schools supported by the U.S. government across the country.

More than a dozen people testified in favor of the measure, many of them the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of survivors of the boarding schools. They said recognizing the 150-year effort to assimilate Indigenous youth and continue territorial grabs from Native tribes would be a step toward healing the trauma now passed down through generations.

“Just as importantly, this bill promotes healing from these past atrocities, and helps our fellow Montanans understand the injustices that Native peoples endured and its impacts that are still being felt today,” said Lance Four Star, speaking on behalf of Western Native Voice.

Four Star, from Fort Peck, said his grandmother is still buried at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where more than 10,000 children from 140 tribes were brought, and where more than 180 children who died there were buried.

Sharen Kickingwoman, the organizing associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, who is Blackfeet Aaniii Cree, said three of her grandparents were taken to boarding schools in Montana, South Dakota and Canada. She said lawmakers should pass the resolution to affirm the experiences of survivors and acknowledge the intergenerational effects they have had on Indigenous families.

She said Indigenous children are removed at disproportionate rates and placed in foster care, pushed out of the school system, and go missing or are murdered more often than other youth.

According to a 2020 report from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Indigenous people comprise the second-highest share of missing persons despite being the smallest portion of the U.S. population. In Montana, between 2011 and 2020, Indigenous people had the highest suicide rates among any racial group (32 per 100,000) despite only being roughly 6% of the population, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“Today, we live in a Montana where Indigenous youth continue to confront these systems of violence – just in different ways,” she said. “… This is the legacy and intergenerational trauma that we carry; and this is the trauma that I carry.”

Keegan Medrano, who is Muscogee and said he is the great-grandchild of boarding school survivors, explained that though Indigenous people make up just 6.5% of Montana’s population, they are six times more likely to be expelled from school, twice as likely to drop out, have a 20% higher suicide rate than the national average, and comprise more than one-fifth of missing persons cases.

“Our spirits don’t speak English. These lands don’t understand the words we are muttering to them,” Medrano said. “These lands are alone having to silently carry the bodies of children and the people they were to become. These lands are carrying the loss, pain and tears.”

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Jade Bahr with the Montana Budget & Policy Center, who is Northern Cheyenne, reminded the committee that when Montana rewrote its constitution, it committed to recognizing the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples and to educating Montanans on their heritage and preserving their culture.

“I think this bill absolutely fits within upholding that Montana mandate. And I know you all took an oath to uphold and protect the Montana Constitution,” she told the committee.

Shawn Reagor, with the Montana Human Rights Network, said something during testimony that Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, asked him during questioning to come back and repeat.

“We need to know about history even though it makes us uncomfortable so we can make sure that it’s not repeated,” Reagor said.

“Being a historian, I concur wholeheartedly,” Fuller replied.

Kelli Twoteeth told the story of her grandmother, Sharon Twoteeth, and her experience at three boarding schools – including ones in Oregon and South Dakota, as well as the Tongue River Boarding School in Busby.

Her grandmother recounted young people breaking legs and even dying attempting to escape a boarding school by trying to jump aboard trains that sped by, she said. Instead of being beaten, her grandma told her the children were often left to sit outside during frigid winters, and many died.

Her grandmother herself escaped the Tongue River school by jumping out of a second-story window and climbing into a truck with a man who would become her husband, she said.

Sharon Twoteeth would eventually open trading posts in Reader’s Alley and on Last Chance Gulch, and she became a popular figure in Helena, Twoteeth said.

“Sharon had every chance to resent what the United States government did to her,” Twoteeth said. “But instead, she became a revered community member and a local business owner, and somebody that everyone loved seeing walking down Last Chance Gulch.”

Martin Charlo, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said his father attended the boarding school at St. Ignatius, and the resolution for a day of remembrance was a small step in recognizing the harm caused to Indigenous families by the schools.

“I feel like it’s kind of the least we can do for a huge population in Montana who are all citizens of this state as well,” he said.

Webber said she brought forward the measure because she too is a survivor of the boarding schools, attending Cut Bank Boarding School from when she was 8 years old until junior high school.

But she said she was “more fortunate than most” because by the time she was at the school, the emotional, sexual and physical abuse her mother and grandparents endured was not as rampant.

But she was segregated from her brothers and lonely, and after she got married and had three sons, she said she still carried the trauma from the matriarchs before her.

Webber said she relied on her husband to discipline the children because he was not brought up through boarding schools. She refused to do so because her own upbringing “was quick and brutal.”

“I was afraid of what I would do when I had to discipline them,” said Webber, the Democratic Senate Minority Whip from Browning.

Webber encouraged lawmakers to go see the schools, as well as the cemetery at Fort Shaw, where graves of children still remain, in order to learn from the not-so-distant past.

She said she wanted to bring the bill because her generation is the last that had to go to the boarding schools as they were, but she wants the victims and their families remembered.

While some schools are still open and the effects of what happened at them into the 1960s remain, she said there are only a handful of children at most of them, and the experience is different than it was from the early 1800s through the first half of the 20th Century.

“I am so glad that it ended with me,” she said.

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