The federal government took Walter Littlemoon from his home at the Wounded Knee Reservation in South Dakota when he was 5.
When his mother visited him at the Oglala Community High School, one of dozens of federal boarding schools established to assimilate Native Americans, several years later, he didn’t recognize her.
“Save the child. Kill the Indian. That is what the boarding school was all about,” Littlemoon, 67, a Lakota Native American from Pine Ridge, SD, said to a crowd of about 75 local and CSU community members who crowded into the Eddy Building Wednesday night.
Well into the 1970s, Native American children were taken by the federal government and enrolled in U.S. government and church-run boarding schools, forced to assimilate into the Western, white culture.
Children were often beaten for speaking their tribal languages and displaying any aspects of their native culture, according to the documentary, “Something’s Moving,” shown at the event.
“(Even) 10 years ago, I was deadly afraid of speaking Lakota because the boarding school had scared it out of me,” Littlemoon said.
Littlemoon, who has published a book about his life story and experiences in the boarding school, he said, along with many of his peers, were subjected to inhumane conditions –/mental and physical abuse abounded –/while they were at the school.
Today, he said, the residual backlash of the boarding schools still haunt him and many others in the Native American community.
Many individuals who grew up in the boarding school, also called residential or naturalization schools in some areas, now experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which is defined by Medicine.Net.com as a natural, emotionalresponse to a deeply shocking and disturbing experience.
Twenty-eight Native Americans committed suicide in the years following a court case in which they testified as to their experiences in the schools in Canada.
Littlemoon, who experiences PTSD, and his wife, Jane Ridgway, are working to raise awareness about the effects of the boarding schools on Native Americans and their families.
Because the national population largely is unaware of the consequences of the 1970’s assimilation efforts, the Denver couple travels to educate members of the Wounded Knee Reservation about the many aspects of the Native American culture lost during this time.
Some students who attended the presentation said they were largely unaware of how Native Americans’ lives were affected by U.S. policy over hundreds of years.
“I’ve never really heard a story like that before, from the actual people,” said Brian Atakpo, a freshman liberal arts major. “I mean when you hear about Native Americans, you hear that they live on reservations and that they’re alcoholics and that they run casinos, but you don’t know how much they suffer and why they suffer.”
Littlemoon and his wife recently created a not-for-profit organization to further their educational efforts and hope to re-instate in the Pine Ridge people a sense of pride in the Native American identity.
“We have a foot in the white world, and we have a foot in the red world,” Littlemoon said. “Why don’t we just pull our feet together and learn how to take a step forward together?”
Staff writer K.C. Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.