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Native Americans tell Haaland their stories of being forced into boarding schools

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland kicked off a listening tour yesterday to hear the stories of Native American students who were forced to attend boarding schools. In May, her department released a report showing that for close to 200 years, the U.S. operated or oversaw these schools. It found that students went through extensive sexual, physical and mental abuse. We talked to Ramona Klein, who is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, based in North Dakota. She was forced to attend one of those schools as a child. Before we start, I should mention this interview refers to physical and sexual abuse of children and may be disturbing to listeners. I asked her to describe the day she began attending the school when she was just 7.

RAMONA KLEIN: I did not have a clear understanding of what was happening. I - this is always so difficult. My clearest memory of that morning is seeing my mom - seeing my mom stand beside the bus holding the hand of my little brother. As an adult when I think back of - I think so much of my mom, what it must have been like for her to see her children leaving. And it seemed like we traveled a long way. And as a little girl, it was a long way. I would guesstimate someplace between, oh, a hundred and thirty and a hundred and fifty miles. When we got to the school, that building seemed very large and it seemed very cold - not inviting.

RASCOE: Can you talk about what you remember most about your time there, whatever you feel comfortable about?

KLEIN: I remember looking out those windows, just yearning. And at night, being so lonely. It got worse for me as far as the loneliness after some of the abuse. One particular matron, she had this board that - it was a paddle - and she would take it by the handle and hit me across my buttocks, but also my lower back as I was kneeling with my arms outstretched. She was trying to make me cry. And I thought, I'm not going to cry. And I'm not going to let you get the best of me. And I did not cry.

RASCOE: I mean, going through that - even not crying, though, you are holding in, like, incredible pain and trauma, right? Like, that - I can't imagine what that did to you.

KLEIN: The other times when it - that loneliness was so great was when the matron's son in the middle of the night - he had a flashlight. You know, even now, when I hear keys or sometimes when I see a flashlight - when I see that, I think of those times. But he came into our room. And he would use his flashlight. It didn't matter if I pretended to sleep because he always found me. Again, I wasn't sure, to begin, what was going on. But I - but in my gut, everything about it was so wrong - was so wrong.

RASCOE: He was sexually abusing you.

KLEIN: Absolutely. It was like something died in me. I think I was a curious child. That personality was dwarfed for a long time.

RASCOE: These are the stories, though, that, you know, Secretary Haaland, on this listening tour, that she's going to be hearing. And why do you think it's important that she hears these stories and hears from people like you who went through this?

KLEIN: So it would help other families. I think the world needs to know about it. We, as Indigenous people, are not viewed as living history. You know, we're almost always portrayed in the past. And until we are using our voices to make - to have people become aware of that, people don't even notice it.

RASCOE: What are some tangible actions that the U.S. government could take now that will make a difference to you and to other survivors?

KLEIN: I think it's very important to have the U.S. government - someone, someplace - to have, like, a help line. Someone listening to this broadcast may hear and identify with something that I'm saying, and it might trigger - or they might remember something. And that kind of scares me if they don't have support. So if they had a place to call, I say - like a national hotline. I think that's doable.

RASCOE: Ramona Klein is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, based in North Dakota. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

KLEIN: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHILK AND MISKY SONG, "SO GOOD TO ME (RE-WORK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.