Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Mission on “Road to Healing” Tour

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stopped at Sinte Gleska University in Mission as her third stop on the “Road to Healing” tour.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Mission Saturday as part of the "Road to Healing" tour.
Published: Oct. 16, 2022 at 9:24 AM CDT
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MISSION, S.D. - Rosalie Quick Bear is one of dozens of Native Americans who showed up to share testimony about their time in Federal Indian boarding schools on Saturday.

Quick Bear relayed a story of being locked in a basement with a classmate at St. Francis Indian Mission School in St. Francis, South Dakota for “several days,” because the staff at the boarding school she attended had forgotten about her.

“We couldn’t talk, we couldn’t see, our eyeballs were swollen, our noses were swollen, our throats were swollen,” Quick Bear shared with those in attendance. “We couldn’t talk at all anymore, just cry. And we couldn’t breath because our throats were so sore in the basement.”

She was just one of the many who shared personal stories of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse while attending a boarding school. Others on hand told stories of family members or ancestors effected, and how that had affected them.

Those effected by Federal Indian Boarding Schools attend a listening tour put together by...
Those effected by Federal Indian Boarding Schools attend a listening tour put together by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Many testified as to how they were negatively impacted by oppressive boarding schools.(Austin Goss DNN/KOTA)

The event was coordinated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and her office. Haaland is the first Native American cabinet secretary in American history.

Haaland, a New Mexico native and member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, told audience members that she was a descendent of “boarding school survivors” herself.

“Federal Indian Boarding School policies have touched every indigenous person I know. Some are survivors, some are descendants, but we all carry the trauma from that era in our hearts. My ancestors endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies, carried out by the same department I now lead,” Haaland said. “This is the first time in history that a United States cabinet secretary comes to the table, with this shared trauma.”

In addition to the staff from the Interior Department and a number of other federal agencies, representatives from Rep. Dusty Johnson and Sen. John Thune’s offices, several tribal politicians, and a number of South Dakota state lawmakers also attended.

“It is a truly historic day to have Secretary Haaland in our homelands,” said State Sen. Troy Heinert (D-Mission). “I would encourage the rest of the Legislature and all future Administrations to learn about these events and attend one if possible. These atrocities to children happened right here in South Dakota, and not that long ago.”

Ronald L. Neiss testified to the sort of punishment students received for “misbehavior.” Neiss attended St. Paul’s Indian School in Marty, SD.

“We had these things called “belt lines,” which were for you if you did something bad... Or at least deemed bad by the nuns in the boarding school. There are two sides of the line, so you would have to run through that belt line, and either side would get to smack you as much as you could.” Neiss said that many would use the buckle of the belts, despite being told not to.

While Congress considers its options to respond to the abuse at boarding schools that has come to light in recent years, Haaland’s office has taken the approach that the first step towards healing is for survivors to share their stories.

For many, it is the first time that they have ever spoken about the abuse they endured.

“As we mourn what we have lost, please know that we still have so much to gain,” Haaland said. “The healing that can help our communities cannot happen overnight, but it will be done. This is one step among many that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities, that the Federal Indian Boarding School policies set out to break.”

The stop was Haaland’s third on the “Road to Healing” tour, more are planned across the country in the coming months.