Indigenous Americans: Healing From a Painful Legacy
with Erik Stegman of Native Americans in Philanthropy
In the late 1800s, the federal government established boarding schools for Native Americans, forcibly separating children from their families, homes, and communities.
Erik Stegman is the Executive Director of Native Americans in Philanthropy, and his family is from the Carry the Kettle First Nation of Saskatchewan, Canada. He joins host Tetiana Anderson to provide a historical and personal perspective about Native American boarding schools, the trauma suffered by those in attendance, and a philanthropic approach to healing and reconciliation.
October 31, 2022
Anderson: The discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of native boarding schools in Canada sparked a United States Department of the Interior investigation into the federal Indian boarding school systems in the US. Beginning in the early 1800s, the federal government started boarding schools where Indigenous children were forced to assimilate into white culture. By May of 2022, the investigation identified marked and unmarked graves at more than 50 different schools. More are expected to be uncovered. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers". I'm Tetiana Anderson. The intergenerational trauma and harm caused by Native American boarding schools is not in the distant past. In fact, it's still fresh for many survivors and their families. Joining me to share more on the history of these boarding schools and a philanthropic approach to healing and reconciliation is Eric Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy. His family is from the Carry the Kettle First Nation of Saskatchewan, Canada. And Eric, thank you so much for being here.
Stegman: Great to be here. Thank you.
Anderson: So your great-grandfather was a victim of these boarding schools. Talk to us a little bit about his story and what learning about his story meant for you.
Stegman: Yeah, well, I didn't grow up with my great-grandfather, so a lot of what I know is through my mother and the rest of our family, and there's a lot of mystery to the story because I think there's a lot that he didn't want to talk about, and what I do know is that there were some things that I learned, like the fact that he was really afraid of the Mounties on a regular basis, and he never learned his language or his culture. But as I got older, I started to learn a lot more about the school itself that he went to and what happened there day to day. And so, some of these things, like the fact that he was afraid of the Mounties, I found out that he had tried to run away several times, as did many kids. And the Mounties are the ones who would round the kids up and actually put them in solitary confinement back at the school. And that's just one example. But, you know, as I started to learn more about the school, I learned a lot about why he probably didn't talk about a lot of the trauma that happened there, because unfortunately, what happened at those schools was all too common for every student that went to them, and my great-grandfather was certainly one of those.
Anderson: And how did that motivate you? I mean, that did something to you as a young person to hear those stories, to make you do what you do today.
Stegman: Yeah, well, my grandfather was actually one of the first -- his son was one of the first American Indian dentists working on the Blackfeet reservation where my mom grew up, and I grew up wanting to serve tribes, and I knew it was an important part of my family history to serve our people. But knowing that history was really important to me. So, when I was a lot younger, I started to do a lot of research into his school and found out about the particular part of the boarding school history that he was part of, which was an industrial school that was mostly for students to learn how to do industrial trades that were really useful to western-wide expansion in Canada, and there was a lot of abuse and a lot of missing children, and he himself was an orphan at the time. So, a lot of what I tried to do is to just really investigate the history of that school to better understand his story.
Anderson: How much of a role do you think that these schools played in the severe loss of language and culture that Native Americans are left with today?
Stegman: Well, I'm a product of it, and that's actually something that really took a lot for me to reconcile over the years. I've been working in tribal law and policy as an activist my whole life, and I don't know my language, I don't know my culture. My great grandfather did, and I know he was very likely, almost certainly subject to a lot of abuse by the school. He hated the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church was the one that ran his school. We were pretty sure he ran away several times. And years later, I found that the Mounties were actually the ones in charge of rounding up runaway students, and they were put into solitary confinement in the school. So, a lot of what I started to dig into was that the very intention of these schools, I'm living with today because I'm still grappling with how to reconnect with my own culture, that he's Nakota, and our reserve is in a Nakota reserve up there, and one of my big goals is to, you know, learn our language and do a lot of the things that he was denied.
Anderson: We know that Canada really took the blueprint for these schools from the United States to aggressively try to erase native culture. The pope did apologize in 2022 for what went on in Canada. How important was that acknowledgment, do you think?
Stegman: It's a great question because I think one of the things that's important for people to understand about the boarding school experience is that these were largely religiously run schools. They were in Canada, really divvied up along with the federal government, by several different churches. My great-grandfather did not attend a Catholic school. The majority of them were run by the Catholics in Canada. And down here, it was a similar situation. A lot of Native people are still religious, sometimes as a result of those schools. In other cases, not everyone has a very personal experience with the church. I think one way or the other, a large oppressive system that was a huge player in this horrible boarding school system apologizing matters, and I think we need to acknowledge that, but it's certainly not enough, and we need a lot more than apologies.
Anderson: Along the lines of apologies, there hasn't been to date any formal apology here in the United States for slavery. How hopeful are you that something like that would actually happen for Native Americans here?
Stegman: I think we're moving forward. You know, I always think about Dr. King's quote, about how the arc of history bends toward justice, and that's the way I kind of look at this. I think the US is a particularly challenging situation when it comes to acknowledging the past with all of these communities that have been marginalized and oppressed. But I think the fact that the Department of Interior launched an investigation on these schools is a big step forward, because what's built into that process is a truth and reconciliation process. There's a listening tour going on that Secretary Deb Haaland is leading, where these people who have been affected by these schools are able to speak their truth and for the government to document that in history. And I think that's an important step forward. And hopefully, as we learn from that, that will move us closer to what should be a formal apology and a process to actually confront that truth.
Anderson: And I know that you say healing sort of starts with learning. How is your organization working to educate the public about all of this?
Stegman: Yeah, it's a huge part of our organization's mission. So we've been around for over 30 years, and our mission is to get as many dollars as possible into tribal communities by the philanthropic sectors and individual donors. And there's a lot to educate the public about our communities. We're diverse. We compromise hundreds of languages and cultures across the country, and this boarding school system affected all of us. And so, people have a lot of really important questions about this, and I'm glad we're talking about it today. And so, what we do is we partner with our partners in the field like the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition -- that's our main partner working on this -- to do educational events, to put out research and literature so that the public really understands what the impact is and how that impact is shared with other communities that have experienced some of this kind of systemic oppression.
Anderson: And in 2008, the federal government dramatically cut off funding to these off-reservation boarding schools. But there are still a handful in operation today. They're, of course, not trying to kill culture. They're trying to teach culture. But what in your mind should happen with these schools in the future?
Stegman: Yeah, it's a great question. I think that what I would say is that a number of these schools are very different than what they were before. As you mentioned, they're actually very culturally grounded. They're really good places for our students to learn. But I think what it should be pointing to is how the federal government should be changing its responsibility to tribes to help us educate our own kids. These are federally run schools that the US government has a treaty responsibility to provide for our education, and there's an amazing movement across the country of educators and community leaders who have really shown what it looks like when we actually control our own education, when we're teaching our kids, when they're very little of their language. Again, when we're instilling those cultural traditions into our healing and wellness programs in our schools, the outcomes are there. And so, what I hope we can see with some of those schools that are still being federally operated is to learn from our own people and to make sure that they're sticking to the treaty obligations that the US government owes us.
Anderson: And Eric, I know that people are going to want to know a lot more about the work you do. What is your website? Where can they go?
Stegman: Sure. Our website is nativephilanthropy.org, and there, you can find resources that will tell you more about tribes and tribal communities and how to invest in our nonprofit organizations across the country.
Anderson: Eric Stegman with Native Americans in Philanthropy, thank you so much for being here.
Stegman: Great to be here. Thank you.
Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.