Abusive boarding schools are also part of Native American heritage
It's called "intergenerational trauma," a family's inheritance of cultural dislocation and lost children. A Dallas Native American artist was one of those children, and she has a plan for finding others.
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Dora Brought Plenty is 71. She's a Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American who came to Dallas 50 years ago. She's a self-taught artist – self-taught because as a child, raised in a native boarding school in South Dakota, her art helped her escape repeated beatings.
"I learned very quickly that some teachers liked my art," Brought Plenty said. "And that was what saved me. I could do my art and I would be kept from being beaten. And that's what I learned at that school – was fear. "
Brought Plenty recently spoke on a panel about American Indian boarding schools at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.
After her mother had been murdered, and after she'd been through a blur of several foster homes, Brought-Plenty was forcibly taken to the boarding school. There, she said, her braids were cut, her clothes were taken, she was ordered to take a shower.
"And at that time they told me, 'you are never to use your name again. Your number is 199,'" she said.
Dora Brought Plenty was six years old.
Many Native Americans are familiar with the boarding schools. A sizable number of them were operated by Catholic and Christian churches.
But until the last two years, they've received little mass attention. This can be chalked up to ignorance in American culture of recent and contemporary reservation life. There has also been a lack of consistent record-keeping. Plus, the great, complicated mass of documents that do exist are in different archives across the country.
Yet one reason for this comparative lack of infamy is some of the Native Americans themselves – the Native children were often terrified into silence.
"If you would ever mention a word about what went on in these boarding schools," Brought Plenty said, "you paid dearly for it. You were not fed, you were beat."
In fact, Brought Plenty herself didn't feel safe enough to talk openly about this, even with her family, until she was 69 years old.
Jodi Voice Yellowfish is Muskogee Creek, Oglala Lakota and Cherokee. She is co-chair of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, founder and chair of
MMIW TX Rematriate (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and the first Native American commissioner on the Dallas Arts and Culture Advisory Commission.
"People tend to forget that that's our reality, and we're still living with it," Yellowfish said. "We have grandparents alive today that survived this and are barely speaking about it."
But the boarding schools are in the spotlight now. Last year, a Canadian Indian group announced that, eventually, thousands of unmarked graves of children may be located near the country's Native schools, although the exact number and nature of the findings are in dispute. In May, the United States Department of the Interior released its first-ever inventory of the 408 federal boarding schools across America.
The state of Texas had no such schools, partly because Texas had only one reservation until 1968. In the 19th century to the early 20th, white settlers in Texas simply killed or drove away many tribes. It's no surprise, then, that across the state border, Oklahoma had 76 boarding schools, far more than any other state. The next highest number was 46 — in New Mexico.
Regardless of Texas' lack of Native boarding schools and its small number of reservations, in the past half-century, thousands of Natives have made North Texas their home. This is partly because of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Natives signed away their land rights to move to big cities like Dallas for jobs or job training.
Yellowfish spoke recently at TCU on a panel about boarding schools. She said her father was bused here, given a little money, and that was pretty much it. He had no community to connect to.
Yellowfish said she's heard worse stories about relocation, "horror stories of people coming in. Their families never heard from them again."
The ostensible goal may have been assimilation into white culture, but the results of both the schools and the relocations, Yellowfish said, were basically the same: erasing Native culture and languages, disrupting families.
"To lose all sense of an individual being Native and being from their tribe and of a community and culture — more than physical abuse, it's an attack on yourself," Yellowfish said.
She added, "Our current reality is that we have the highest number of children in the foster care system. I don't know any family personally in the Native community that hasn't raised a child that's been lost in the system in some way. You know, that's a very common, very normal thing for us to see — aunties raising nieces, nephews, grandparents raising grandchildren."
Yellowfish and her husband are raising a niece and two nephews.
In the face of all this, Yellowfish said, just living in North Texas and connecting to tribal culture is an accomplishment.
"There's a lot of pride in surviving and being here for generations," she said.
Last year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American to hold that post — announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to address the "intergenerational trauma" caused by federal policies and to "identify associated marked and unmarked burial sites."
This effort has begun with extensive research through the many archives, legal documents, questions of land ownership and treaties.
Brought Plenty's plan is simpler and more direct. She's sold her artworks online to raise money, and along with a GoFundMe campaign, she, her daughter, Neilofar, and her son-in-law, Bradley Luyt, have purchased a Noggin 250, a ground-penetrating radar. She hopes to use it to locate buried native remains. She herself worked as a lab technician at Baylor Hospital and says her son-in-law has trained to use the radar.
"Our children, our ancestors, that did not come back from these Indian boarding schools deserve to come home," Brought Plenty said.
Ground-penetrating radar does not actually "identify" human remains. It emits a high-frequency pulse into the ground that, when bounced back, allows the GPR unit to create a visual representation of what's underground. Researchers are looking for anomalies — simple, rough shapes that don't belong. These often confirm what they already suspect may be there because of previous research into records or oral history. The initial discoveries in Canada confirmed what Native leaders had long claimed.
But the ground-penetrating radar results must also be confirmed, which sometimes can only be achieved through exhumation.
Some tribes are understandably wary of all this. White America has a long history of carting off Native remains and artifacts, especially to museums.
Brought Plenty says she understands such fears, as well as the conflicting legal matters that can make such searches time-consuming.
"But there should be some legal ways that we can get around that," she said.
Right now, two sites, one in California, one in Arizona, are considering her plan.
Brought Plenty said their search could start as early as March.
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