Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
September 30, 2021 — Congressional Record page 6826.
On September 30, 2021, Senator Murkowski, U.S. Senator from Alaska, proposed a resolution marking the date as a “Day of Remembrance” for the children who died in the Native American boarding schools. Her remarks were included in the Congressional Record of that day:
…I came to the floor today because this is a day of special recognition, September 30. And I am joining colleagues and many people across our country and in Canada, who are coming together on what we are calling a National Day of Remembrance, to give voice to the thousands of Native children who tragically died in Indian boarding schools across America and in Canada and to acknowledge and support the thousands of Native children who survived but are perhaps still coping with intergenerational trauma from these experiences.
Today, we recognize and honor the lives lost of thousands of innocent
Native children who died and remain lost to their communities and
families in misattributed or unmarked graves across America and in
Canada. We remember not only the children that were lost but not
forgotten, but also the families, again, that are still impacted by
Supporters like myself are wearing orange today because of the story
of one First Nation’s boarding school survivor, Phyllis Webstad.
Phyllis helped to elevate this issue by recounting her own boarding
school experience in Canada. She was just 6 years old–6 years old. She
was living with her grandmother when she was taken away to a
residential Mission school.
You know, you think about what that means, to know that the child that is entrusted to you as the grandparent, that her education, the only education that she will be able to receive, will be away from the family, away from you at 6 years of age.
Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but somehow, her grandmother
managed to buy a new outfit for her to wear on the first day of school,
and that outfit included a new shiny orange shirt that Phyllis had picked out for this occasion. And when that little girl arrived at school, excited for her first day, she was shocked to be stripped of her clothes and her new orange shirt and forced to wear a standard uniform. And it was that moment in time that would leave an indelible mark on a young girl that would later start a movement across nations to remind us how innocent Native children were truly stripped of their identities and made to feel as if they didn’t matter–they just didn’t
The stories of those children who were taken from their families and sent away to these boarding schools need to be shared, and they need to be heard. And we collectively, as a country, need to support indigenous survivors in their healing journey.
Our Nation’s history in the treatment of Native American people is not an easy one to tell. It is not easy to hear or to acknowledge, but our discomfort in sharing painful, collective history probably pales in comparison to the lived experience and the realities that so many Native people continue to face today.
For a long period of time, beginning with the enactment of the Civilization Act of March 3, 1819, there were thousands of Native American children who were taken from their families and taken from their communities, often forcibly removed. They were relocated to residential boarding schools. Some of the schools were perhaps closer to their home and some of those schools not so close to home and not so close to their families.
The Federal Government made attendance compulsory for all indigenous
children. Some of the children were as young as just 3 or 4 years old.
I find that just incomprehensible, really, that a toddler–a toddler–
could be removed from their home and their parents.
While Indian boarding schools were in operation, many enrolled
children were forced into manual labor. Some worked maintaining the
schools that they were in, and a number of schools lent the children to
nearby communities or surrounding States to work, and they worked as
domestic servants. They may have worked as farm laborers and at
While attending Indian boarding school, so many–so many–children
were stripped of their Native identities and their culture. We have
heard the stories. They were forbidden to speak in their traditional
language. They were forbidden to practice their religious or their
spiritual beliefs. They were forbidden to dress in traditional clothes,
to wear their hair long or in braids. Native identity was replaced with
a new identity that was viewed as being more acceptable to American
society at that time. And by cutting a child’s long hair, speaking to
them only in English, dressing them in uniforms, shedding all parts of
their indigenous cultures, our Federal Government really stole from
these children their identities, who they are.
The stories are told–they are legendary in many places–stories told
about when a child disobeyed the rules, they were often physically,
verbally, mentally abused, sometimes placed in solitary confinement
like a prisoner. It has been commonly reported that numerous Native
children who attended the Indian boarding schools were abused both
physically and sexually. Many children died while at the schools.
This is what remains unknown. We know that they died from exposure to disease. We know that there were deaths due to accidents. There were
many unexplained reasons–but the abuse that some suffered.
In recent months, we have seen shocking evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children who attended Canadian residential schools and were found at former schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Here in this country, the Department of the Interior has begun a comprehensive archival review of U.S. boarding schools that were here. This is going to be a very important and a very necessary investigation.
… I want to share with you the story of one young Aleut girl from Alaska. She was an orphan. She was 17 years old when she died. She died on May 6, 1906. She was a student of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This was a rural boarding school that is located in Pennsylvania.
Sophia Tetoff was Unangas, Aleut. She was one of the many children who were lent from the Carlisle School to live with and work for other White families. So keep in mind, when she left Alaska, she was 12 years old. She is 12 years old. She thinks she is going off to boarding school, she is going to get her education, and she is lent from the school to live and work for White families in that area.
Within her first year of being at Carlisle, Sophia would be placed with families in New Jersey, in Maryland, and in Pennsylvania, where she worked essentially as a servant. We don’t know a lot of the details of those 5 years that Sophia spent at Carlisle, but what we do know is that after the near monthlong journey it took to get this young girl from her home village on St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea–think about that. You are 12 years old, and you are put on a ship, leaving your small village in the middle of the Bering Sea and crossing those waters to get over to the east coast–a month long journey, for a
She spent the majority of her time living with various non-Native families, working as a servant, without her family or any familiarity to offer her any comfort.
It was during her last placement that she contracted tuberculosis. She was returned to the school–not returned home. She was returned to the school, where she died a year later, alone in a school hospital. She died alone, 4,000 miles from her home and her family.
This year, in July, Sophia’s remains, along with the remains of nine Rosebud Sioux children, were repatriated from Carlisle, PA, back to their original homelands.
Sophia was returned home to St. Paul for her final burial and her forever resting place, surrounded by relatives and people who loved her, even though most had never known her.
It has been reported that Sophia was one of 188 students buried at Carlisle, and she was one of more than 100,000 Native children who were placed in an estimated 375 boarding schools across our country in an effort to assimilate Indian people.
So just let that kind of sink in for a moment here, the sheer number of young, young children who were taken from their parents, from their families, their Tribes, and their communities who would never return home. This is just–it is heartbreaking.
Carlisle was one of the first off-reservation, government-funded, assimilationist boarding schools that Native American children attended. We often hear the name BG Richard Henry Pratt mentioned when we learn of some of the atrocities that came from Indian boarding school policies. Mr. Pratt was the founder of the Carlisle School, and he coined the phrase “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
At that time in history, mainstream society largely believed that Native Americans were a problem that needed to be solved and regarded Indian people as almost less than human, savages who needed to be segregated or terminated. Pratt, however, was of another mind and believed in the noble cause of assimilating Native Americans, and his mission was to civilize Indians and assimilate them into mainstream American society. While Pratt may not have intended to be malevolent, the policies and practices that were carried out under his name and Federal mission tore thousands of Native families apart. The impact of these actions authorized by our government upon Native
American people and cultures is something that we never can truly make
whole. In many respects, Native cultures were gutted by the impact and loss of Native children, and that is something that we as American people need to acknowledge, learn from, and reckon with in order to support Indian self-determination and healing.
In 1886, a government report about the progress of Indian boarding schools stated that isolating Native children from their families was the key. The report stated:If it be admitted that education affords the true solution to the Indian problem, then it must be admitted that the boarding school is the very key to the situation.
It went on to say: Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.
It wouldn’t be until a 1969 Kennedy report that found Indian education had failed and was a national tragedy that the Federal Government would look to begin improving Native American education policies. I think Samuel Torres, of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said it well when he said: “If we can’t name the trauma, if we don’t know the extent and scope of that trauma, we’ll never heal from it.”
So as we are looking to the future and continuing our mission of educating people about America’s painful past treatment of so many Native American people, I would ask that you consider remembering the names of the children who were lost, like Sophia Tetoff, and start weaving the names of these innocent Native children into our collective memory.
If we are going to accurately account for our history and truly support indigenous people, we need to include Native children in this narrative towards healing–say their names, remember their Tribes, and acknowledge the survivors and the families who are still with us.
[B]efore I conclude, I want to mention that, to mark the significance of this day, I have introduced a concurrent resolution designating September 30, 2021, as a national day of remembrance for the Native American children who have died while attending a U.S. boarding school and to recognize and honor the survivors of Indian boarding schools and their families.
Now, my resolution is not meant to serve as a solution or an answer or even a long-overdue apology; it, instead, seeks to honor the lives of the many Native children who died in Indian boarding schools and to recognize, support, and honor the survivors and their families and acknowledge the grief and the trauma that our country created, we condoned, and we codified. So my resolution is meant to open a door to the conversation and congressional recognition of the atrocities that our government contributed to and the impact that it has had on so many.
I know we are approaching November. It is usually when we recognize National Native American Heritage Month, but I think it is important that we remember every day, not only today, all those who fought to be here, especially our first peoples in this country. I would encourage all to look at our resolution and support and recognize September 30 for all of the Native American children who died while attending an Indian boarding school or survived the experience and are living to tell about it.
We honor them, their Tribes, their parents, their families, and their