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Gov. Evers signs executive order apologizing for Wisconsin's role in Native American boarding schools

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Posted at 11:53 AM, Oct 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-11 18:44:14-04

ONEIDA, Wis. — As Wisconsin recognizes it's third annual Indigenous Peoples' Day, Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order issuing a formal acknowledgment and apology for the state's role in Native American boarding schools.

According to a release, "there were at least 10 day and boarding schools in Wisconsin where thousands of Native children attended, while hundred of children from Wisconsin were sent to attend out-of-state boarding schools in places like Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Virginia."

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Gov. Tony Evers

The boarding schools are known to have stripped children of their identities, traditions and family connections. Nationwide there were more than 350 Native American boarding schools.

"The intent was to radically change indigenous cultures. You do this by not only taking away a culture's language, by taking away their ways of being and knowing, but enforcing that violently," said Marquette Assistant Professor in English, Samantha Majhor. Majhor's focus is on Native American literature.

Students at Native American boarding schools experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse, according to the Native American Boarding School Coalition. An unknown number of lives were also lost.

"I hate to even call them boarding schools. You don't bury children in graveyards outside of schools," said Associate Justice for the Ho Chunk Nation Supreme Court, Tricia Zunker.

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Zunker said her great-grandparents attended Bethany Indian Mission in Wittenberg, Wisconsin. Although they survived, she says the trauma they witnessed is inter-generational.

"I never really pried. There are just some things that are so painful and hurtful, and it's their story to tell. So, I think the fact that we are here today, we're surviving, we're resilient, we are persevering, I think that continues on with the story of all those children that were in the boarding schools," Zunker said.

In a statement on Indigenous Peoples' Day, Gov. Evers said:

“As a state, we share responsibility for acknowledging the pain inflicted on Tribal communities historically and even still today. We also have a moral obligation to pursue the truth and to bring these injustices to light in Wisconsin and across our country because that understanding and acknowledgment is essential for accountability and healing. We recognize the trauma inflicted on Native families and communities and the loss of language, culture, and identity and the intergenerational effects these facilities had and still have while honoring the resilience and contributions of Indigenous people to our state and our country.”

Majhor reacted to the apology and acknowledgment, saying, "I tend to look at apologies as they should be looked at, which is a start. Now that we're looking at these histories, we can really reconcile with the loss of cultural knowledge that we've experienced and the sort of breaking of deep family ties. And we're relearning our languages, dancing, and various other cultural practices are flourishing. So I see us looking at the boarding school experience as an important part of recovery."

As part of the order signed on Monday, Gov. Evers also announced his intent to support Secretary of the Department of the Interior Deb Haaland's investigation into the boarding schools. The goal of the investigation is to get a better idea of what children experienced, how many died at the schools, and how many still may be buried in unmarked graves.

The investigation came about in part when it was announced earlier this year that the remains of more than 1,300 students were discovered at Canadian residential school sites.

Click here to view the proclamation.

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