Sacramento, California – September 30, 2023— Content warning! The stories in this blog may be triggering for some people.
National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, also known as Orange Shirt Day, is recognized on September 30th commemorating the over 150,000 Native American children who attended Indian Residential Schools and the 6,000 plus First Nations children who died under their care. Every Child Matters is a slogan used in tandem with the day and is dedicated to ending the oppression of Native People and normalizing the discussion of the traumas they endured. We can no longer stay silent and protect the lies that have been spread. It is time for the truth and stories to be shared, so the process of healing and reconciliation can begin.
Boarding schools were established to assimilate Native American children into European American culture. Those impacted by these schools were subjected to multiple forms of violence such as physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse. The students were subjected to inhumane discipline and mutilation, cultural ethnocide through the separation from language, culture, and community, ecocide with the destruction of their environment and their relationship to the land, and internalized generational trauma. Christian beliefs were forced onto all students and corporal punishment was inflicted if they did not conform. The colonial ways and ideas being taught to students were then taken back to the tribes, forever changing their respective cultural teachings.
Many First Nations were not rigidly defined by a gender binary. Some tribes did not call a child by any gender until they were old enough to decide. After boarding school these traditions suffered the consequences.
“Two-spirit folks were forced to colonial standards of what they viewed gender/sexuality/identities should be… Enforcing such beliefs resulted in generational traumas within families and communities; including homophobia and transphobia. We are continuing to feel the results of colonialism but moving forward together within a decolonized healing model. We are strong and we are still here. As my elder Nick would say, ‘Make our people proud,’ and we are doing just that as we continue to heal as a community.” – Manny Luna (Wukchumni, Chiricahua Apache), SNAHC Community Health Program Manager.
“My aunts, uncles, and grandmother were sent to Sherman Indian school at Riverside, CA, and to Nevada Stewart Boarding School. I believe those are the names of the schools. They were taken from their parents. My great-uncles were taught leatherwork and tanning to make shoes. My grandmother washed and laundered clothes for ranchers nearby. Their hair was cut, and they were told not to speak their Native tongue. They were beaten when they talked to each other in their language and were split up. They did not know where the other kids went. This was done to a lot of my family members (Miwok, Maidu, Yokut, Nisenan, and Costanoan tribes). One aunt ran away but was sent back to the school. My Great-grandparent went to get the children but was unable to because they were told the kids were moved. One uncle was sent to Carlisle Boarding School and the family never knew what happened to him. Our elders are no longer here, but they are still thought of and missed. Today is my mother’s birthday and I will always remember our history and honor our ancestors!” – Lisa Jimenez (Miwok, Maidu, Yokut, Nisenan, Costanoan), SNAHC Medical Receptionist.
It is important to remember and have discussions about what has transpired over the decades. “Everything that ever happened to First Nations people across Canada started with these schools… Physical, sexual, mental abuse, discrimination, genocide, treason… Everything started with these schools,” said Chief Fred Robbins of Esk’etemc First Nation in an article titled Every Child Matters: Phyllis Webstad’s Story Behind Orange Shirt Day. Here in Sacramento, cultural bearer Diana Almendariz (Maidu/Wintun, Hupa/Yurok) was willing to share her grandmother’s boarding school story and the grieving traditions of her people.
Please be aware, the following story contains inhumane corporal punishment.
“Grandma was in a boarding school in Orgon. It was run by Catholics; you know the nuns in the cool hats that look like wings. Grandma called them Black and Whites. She spoke English well, so she did things for the nuns. They put a lot of cultural stuff on her and she tried her best.
Three Washo sisters were extracted and brought to the school one day. They were crying and the nuns were impatient and mean. They handed them over to Grandma to watch them and she did her best to communicate with them, not knowing their language and trying to figure it out.
As time went on, whenever the nuns got mad at them, they would call Grandma over to calm them down and deal with it. They kept the sisters away from each other, but they found ways to meet in secret. Grandma spoke Nisenan Maidu and Patwin Wintun and she had gotten in trouble a few times for speaking her language. She already knew the rules and tried to tell the girls not to make the same mistakes and share their culture publicly.
The Washo girls decided to hide and whisper in a closet and one day a nun found them. The nuns dragged the girls into the kitchen where Grandma was washing dishes. Little did they know there was a fork heating up on the stove. A nun directed them to stick their tongues out and burned each one of them. I guess they thought it was OK to do this in front of Grandma.
Grandma lost track of the girls after that and when she asked the nuns they said, ‘Don’t ask that’. Grandma always thought of them, asking about them at events or PowWows. She was looking for closure, hoping they got taken to another site, but I don’t think they survived.
I’m happy and aware of the feelings that come with this story. You know, when we lose our family, we do “A Cry”. We sing and cry over the body and then we turn that cry into a happy song. I feel the tear of the spirit can heal in this situation. The cry songs have helped my sorrow after the loss of a loved one, and the happy songs have helped heal my spirit wounds. I have been able to let go. We put a plate out for four days for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without saying their name because we don’t want to call the spirit back. They need peace and need to move on.” – Diana Almendariz (Maidu/Wintun, Hupa/Yurok), Sacramento Cultural Bearer.
The people who died under the care of the boarding schools did not get to move on. Their spirits linger there, on that land where it happened. They were taken away from their cultural practices and discarded when they found ways to fight back. Those who were abused and survived took deep scars with them into adulthood, turning them into generational traumas and lessons of mistrust. National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is not a day for empty gestures. It is a day to listen to our Native community to try and understand the adversities they had to endure and overcome. These are their stories that shape their reality, and despite all the odds against them, they are still here to tell them.
Learn about SNAHC’s Free Counseling Services here:
Find out how you can aid the Truth, Justice, and Healing movement here:
Sacramento Native American Health Center is a non-profit 501(c)(3) Federally Qualified Health Center committed to continue and share the legacy of a healthy American Indian / Alaska Native community based on cultural values delivered through a traditional, innovative, and accessible patient-centered health home. SNAHC offers primary care, oral health, behavioral health, specialty, and supportive services. We are open to all, and all are welcome. For more information on SNAHC, visit www.snahc.org or call 916-341-0575 for an appointment.
# # #