Indigenous Peoples Day: Celebrating Heritage, Confronting History

As we celebrate the resilience and vibrancy of Native peoples, we mourn the thousands of Native children who were abused and murdered at federally-run boarding schools.

Members of the dance group Cetiliztli Nauhcampa perform at the first Annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day Ceremonial Celebration in Newton, Mass., on Oct. 11, 2021. The day was officially recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day following a proclamation by President Joe Biden. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

Two years ago, President Biden proclaimed Oct. 9 as Indigenous Peoples Day: “Our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples,” he wrote, “recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.”

The Biden administration has done more for Native communities than any other, with historic advances like naming Native people to key posts and agencies, taking action to restore and protect sacred sites, and supporting policies to protect and uplift Native peoples. But there is still more that the federal government can do to honor our trust and treaty obligations. 

This Indigenous Peoples Day, as we celebrate the resilience, contributions and vibrant cultures of Native peoples, we’re also mourning the thousands of Native children who were abused and murdered at federally-run boarding schools. For over 150 years, the U.S. government systematically enforced policies that forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Native children from their homes, families and communities to be ‘culturally assimilated’ within the confines of boarding schools.

At least 523 institutions were part of the Native American boarding school system—408 of which received federal funding. These schools were in at least 35 states, yet most Americans know nothing about this history.

Thanks to Secretary Deb Haaland and the Department of the Interior, this violent and traumatic history is finally coming to light. Volume 1 of their investigative report on federal Indian boarding schools was released in May 2022; Volume 2 is expected by the end of the year. This work has been transformational in calling attention to this issue and amplifying the voices of survivors.

We urge the House and Senate to pass the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act and bring justice to the more than 100,000 stolen children who were subject to psychological, physical and sexual abuse. This is an opportunity for the federal government to right their wrongs and address the generational trauma and harm brought upon survivors of these schools, their families and descendants, and tribal governments and Native cultures at large. 

Native American girls from the Omaha tribe at Carlisle School in Carlisle, Penn., in 1876. (Corbis via Getty Images)

The pain and suffering inflicted upon Native families through these policies persist and reverberate in our communities today.

Crystal Echo Hawk: ‘The Boarding School System … Profoundly Affected My Entire Family’

My grandfather seldom spoke about his time in the boarding school system. Still, his experience profoundly affected my entire family and how we engage with our cultural heritage.

It’s why I spent the past year investigating the boarding school history at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., for our recent podcast, American Genocide, in which we found a deeply troubling and heart-wrenching story of intergenerational trauma, resilience and the indomitable spirit of the Native communities.

I realized that to confront this part of our history, we have to talk about it, learn about it, and share it as widely as we can—to ensure that this history never repeats itself. 

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan: ‘I Want My Daughter to Understand Her History … and Know This Harm Will Never Enter Her Life’

Boarding schools are one generation removed from my family, but the trauma continues to impact my life and every Native person I know.

My first job out of college was with the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis, where I worked to bridge the trust gap between Native families and schools. For the Native families I worked with, school was not a welcoming or safe place. The memories of boarding schools are very recent, leading to fear of school systems. This showed up in how families engaged with parent-teacher conferences; some grandparents objected to sending their children to school at all to keep them safe.

Then, my daughter was born, and I felt an even deeper connection to this historical trauma. Imagining someone knocking on my door, taking my child from my arms, and lacking all the power to protect her motivates me to do this work every day. I want my daughter to understand her history, feel grounded in her identity, and know that this harm will never enter her life. And once people know our nation’s entire history, it will change how we start addressing these issues. 

Crystal Echo Hawk and Lt. Governor of Minnesota Peggy Flanagan at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 21, 2023. (Anna Webber / Getty Images for IllumiNative)

Representation Is Power

Despite our trauma, there is much to celebrate about Native peoples today.

We’re making incredible strides in representation across sectors—from entertainment, to government, to the judicial system. We have record numbers of Native leaders across the United States.

In Minnesota, we have codified government-to-government relationships with the 11 sovereign tribes—a massive victory in building trust with one another. We’ve invested in Native language revitalization, healthcare access, housing and more. Representation is power, and across the country, we’re seeing the potential of Native leadership to enact meaningful change and protect our sovereignty. 

There remains a considerable amount of work ahead to heal from this painful history fully, and we hope Congress passes the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act so that we can move closer to the truth, healing and reconciliation that are essential for a more just and equitable future for all. Native peoples predate the United States, and yet, time and time again, the U.S. government has sought to take our land, diminish our culture, and erase our identity. Despite these efforts, Native peoples continue to shine. 

This Indigenous Peoples Day, as we honor the rich tapestry of Native culture and celebrate the diversity and enduring spirit of Native communities, let us also acknowledge the legacy of Native American boarding schools and remember the Native children who were taken from us far too soon. In their honor, we will never stop uplifting the Native traditions and customs that these schools tried so hard to strip from us.

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About and

Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, the first and only national Native-led organization focused on changing the narrative about Native peoples on a mass scale. IllumiNative has been instrumental in changing the narrative and representation of contemporary Native peoples in key sectors of entertainment, pop culture, media and politics. Crystal is known nationally as a thought leader, innovator, acclaimed speaker and skilled executive who builds meaningful collaborations.
Peggy Flanagan is Minnesota’s 50th lieutenant governor, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, and currently the country’s highest ranking Native woman elected to executive office. At the center of all her work is making progress for children, working families, communities of color and Indigenous communities, and Minnesotans who have historically been underserved and underrepresented.