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'Road to Healing' tour makes Minnesota stops

Survivors of Indian boarding schools share their stories

A woman holds a microphone.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland addresses the attendees during “The Road to Healing” visit while Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland looks on. The two were part of a tour that stopped at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe District 1 Community Aquatic and Fitness Center Saturday June 3, 2023 in Onamia, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is in Minnesota this week to continue the department’s work with Indigenous communities.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe hosted an event on Saturday, the seventh stop on a year-long “Road to Healing” tour led by Haaland. Alongside Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland, Haaland heard from survivors of Indian boarding schools, and from descendants of survivors.

“This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen the bonds within Native communities that federal boarding schools set out to break,” Haaland said.

The trip is part of the Department of the Interior's Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative — an effort to uncover stories from federally run boarding schools for Indigenous children. These schools operated between 1819 through the 1970s, forcibly taking children from their families to assimilate them.

Haaland is travelling the country, holding events where survivors and their families can share their experiences and seek support.

A woman holds a microphone and speaks.
Rose Barber of Lac Courte Oreilles, Wis., talks about her parents experience with having been sent to boarding school during “The Road to Healing” tour Saturday June 3, 2023 in Onamia, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Overall, there were 408 of these federal schools in the United States. Minnesota was home to 21 of them, one federal off-reservation boarding school and 20 day schools. In an investigative report released last year, the Department of the Interior said it had found burial sites at 53 different schools, some of them unmarked.

This project aims to uncover stories of boarding school survivors and provide space for survivors to share their experiences. Also in attendance at the hearing was Shelly Lowe, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Haaland said she hopes her office and the NEH might soon begin work on a permanent oral history project centered on the experiences of survivors.

For Haaland, the project is personal, too — her grandparents were taken to federal boarding schools.

“Federal Indian Boarding School Policies touched every Indigenous person I know,” Haaland said. “We all carry this painful legacy in our hearts. Deeply ingrained in so many of us is the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted.

Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin welcomed Haaland.

“As native people we have long memories that span generations,” Benjamin said. “The United States has much to be held accountable for that many would rather forget.”

Trauma informed counselors and break rooms were made available to all who attended the day’s events.

Next, Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland will head to Minneapolis for a hearing with the Not Invisible Act Commission. The commission is developing policy recommendations for combating the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people.