Telling the Truth About Our History

As you may have gathered reading these messages on a regular basis, I care deeply about how we, as leaders in this Independent Sector community, take the time to reflect on our collective histories, stories, and strategies for change and impact. I also believe that reflection is necessary on all levels of our leadership – personally, in our roles as leaders, and as part of this larger ecosystem in which we all work. With that in mind, I have been sitting in deep reflection alone and with Native colleagues on the devasting news of human remains found at residential schools all over Canada.

The gut-wrenching reality is that leaders in civil society organizations and religious institutions were direct perpetrators of abusive, racist policies, and traumatic practices that led to the killing of culture, spirits, and lives of Native people in Canada and in the United States. In Canada, despite their six-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission process concluding in 2015, but due to continued advocacy by First Nations communities, the unmarked graves of 1,148 people have been discovered, many of whom were children. It is clear that this is just the beginning of these discoveries. To understand the scale of what we’re talking about throughout North America, there were approximately 150 residential schools in Canada, while in the United States, there were 367 confirmed residential schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

The trauma and unresolved grief being held by Native staff, volunteers, board members, colleagues, community members is enormous. To those readers who are not Native: please acknowledge and take time to make space for their trauma and grief. It is the absolute least we can do.

Through our individual and collective work in this community, we have learned that holding space is not enough. Our values of racial equity, inclusion, and belonging necessitates the active work of truth-telling, healing, reconciliation, and repairing this immense damage. In late June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.

“The Interior Department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” said Secretary Haaland in the June 22 press release. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

What Secretary Haaland makes clear is that this will be painful, but telling the truth is the first and necessary step. But it’s not just about looking at this horrific pain and trauma inflicted on Native people, it’s also about looking at who did the inflicting. We – leaders of nonprofits, foundations, and religious institutions – must own that our systems played significant roles in the abuse and deaths of members of our human family either directly by opening, running, or supporting these residential schools, or by being complicit by not speaking up to end the practice. We must own this brutal reality and learn from it. The recent discoveries have raised a whole set of questions that I am committed to reflecting on both individually and in my role at Independent Sector. In addition, the conversation must also move toward considering what actions or positions we take in the future.

One important fact we must hold as we wrestle with these truths is that the legacy of these systems isn’t in our distant past. Between 1869 and the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native children were removed from their homes and families as part of ongoing federal policy to assimilate Native people and communities. As Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and board member of Independent Sector, told me in a recent conversation, the legacy of residential schools lives on today in our child welfare system, which is seen as the most recent tool for separating children from their families and furthering the goal of assimilation. Additionally, several of the boarding schools identified by National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition are still operational as of 2020.

There is plenty that non-Native organizations can do – from learning more about this history to supporting the policies that will systemically address these injustices. But please, don’t skip over educating yourselves. Read about what is happening in Canada and the efforts here in the United States to uncover this truth. Understand the history and role of federal, state, and local governments in shaping and enforcing these policies. Read literature from Native people, especially in your communities, and understand what role, if any, your specific organization or institution played in this racist system. Opening ourselves to understanding the truth enables us to start the reconciliation process.

Independent Sector will commit to doing the same. As we understand more about what happened within the United States and have opportunities to weigh in on policies and practices that further create a healthier and more just civil society and nation where all people thrive, we will do just that. We can and should lend our power and privilege to communities that have been exploited, harmed, or left on the margins. There is simply no other way to move forward in our collective mission for a better world, and we hope you’ll join us.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion