Native Americans tell Haaland their stories of being forced into boarding schools: NPR

Ayesha Rascoe speaks with Ramona Klein, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, about a listening tour among Native Americans by US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.


US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland yesterday launched a listening tour to hear the stories of Native American students who were forced to attend boarding schools. In May, his department released a report showing that for nearly 200 years the United States operated or supervised these schools. He revealed that the students had suffered extensive sexual, physical and mental abuse. We spoke to Ramona Klein, who is a member of the North Dakota-based Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. She was forced to attend one of these schools as a child. Before I begin, I should mention that this interview refers to physical and sexual abuse of children and may disturb listeners. I asked her to describe the day she started going to school when she was only 7 years old.

RAMONA KLEIN: I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was going on. I–it’s always so hard. My clearest memory of this morning is seeing my mom – seeing my mom standing next to the bus holding my little brother’s hand. As an adult, when I think back to – I think so much about my mom, how it must have been for her to see her kids go. And it seemed like we had come a long way. And as a little girl, it was a long road. I would estimate somewhere between, oh, a hundred and thirty to a hundred and fifty miles. When we arrived at the school, this building seemed very large and it seemed very cold – not inviting.

RASCOE: Can you talk about what you remember most about your time there, what made you feel comfortable?

KLEIN: I remember looking out of those windows, dreaming. And at night, being so alone. It got worse for me regarding loneliness after some abuse. One matron in particular, she had this board that – it was a paddle – and she would grab it by the handle and hit me on the buttocks, but also on the lower back as I was kneeling with my arms outstretched. She was trying to make me cry. And I thought, I’m not going to cry. And I won’t let you get the best of me. And I didn’t cry.

RASCOE: I mean, going through this – even without crying, though, you’re holding back, like, incredible pain and trauma, aren’t you? Like, that – I can’t imagine what that did to you.

KLEIN: The other times when – this loneliness was so great, was when the matron’s son in the middle of the night – he had a flashlight. You know, even now when I hear keys or sometimes when I see a flashlight – when I see that, I think of those times. But he came into our room. And he would use his flashlight. It didn’t matter that I pretended to be asleep because he always found me. Again, I wasn’t sure at first what was going on. But me – but in my gut, everything was so wrong – so wrong.

RASCOE: He was sexually abusing you.

KLEIN: Absolutely. It was as if something had died inside me. I think I was a curious kid. This personality has long been eclipsed.

RASCOE: Those are the stories, though, that, you know, Secretary Haaland, on this listening tour, that she’s going to hear. And why do you think it’s important for her to hear these stories and hear from people like you who have been there?

KLEIN: So that would help other families. I think the world should know that. We as Aboriginal people are not seen as living history. You know, we are almost always portrayed in the past. And until we use our voices to make – to make people aware of it, people don’t even notice it.

RASCOE: What concrete actions could the US government take now that will make a difference for you and other survivors?

KLEIN: I think it’s very important that the US government – ​​someone, somewhere – has, like, a hotline. Someone listening to this show can hear and relate to something I say, and it might trigger – or they might remember something. And it scares me if they don’t have support. So if they had a place to call, I say – like a national hotline. I think it is doable.

RASCOE: Ramona Klein is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, based in North Dakota. Thank you very much for sharing your story.

KLEIN: You are welcome.


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Nohemi M. Moore