Rose Jakub remembers seeing the metal edge of the ruler before it landed on her cousin’s head.
They had been standing in a circle of friends at their Arizona boarding school, where Indigenous children like them were forced to attend. Her cousin was telling them a story in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, which they were forbidden to speak there.
From behind them, their teacher somehow overheard. He walked up, Jakub recalled, and cracked the ruler hard over the boy’s forehead, with the metal landing on his flesh. The kids froze, Jakub said, as blood started running down her cousin’s face.
“He was just bleeding so much,” she said, choking up at the memory. “These things happened a lot there. We were punished for things and made to do things that were not very nice.”
Jakub, who is Diné (or Navajo), shared her experience Thursday as part of a panel on the trauma of boarding schools at Utah’s annual Native American Summit. Members of tribes in the state and across the country, she said, can feel empowered to talk about their stories and tell the painful truth about what happened to them at these schools, often run by churches or the federal government.
She said there’s a national reckoning over that past happening now, with U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, serving in the presidential Cabinet.
Haaland has ordered an investigation of the schools in the United States; her department’s first report identifying 408 schools operating from 1819 to 1969 was released in May.
It listed at least 53 burial sites at those schools. Seven schools in Utah were included, with three of them focused on enrolling Diné or Navajo students. (The Salt Lake Tribune created its own list of eight Utah schools in March, after examining hundreds of records.)
The boarding schools aimed to assimilate Native children into white culture, and typically banned them from speaking their language. Rules “were often enforced through punishment,” the Interior report said, “including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing.”
Gayle Dawes held up the report during the panel, urging everyone in the room to read it. Before this, she said, “the federal government has failed to provide data for anything.”
“My people, we need to speak,” she said. “There’s so much healing that needs to be done.”
Dawes, who is also Diné, was forced to go to a boarding school near Winslow, Arizona, called the Dilcon School. She grew up on the Navajo Nation. Many kids there, even if they were in the Utah portion of the sovereign land, were removed from their homes and sent to Arizona for school. She was there from age 7 to 14.
Then she was pushed to attend another school in Arizona 80 miles from her home, she said.
The same treatment happened to all 11 members of the board of directors of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the Indigenous-led nonprofit. In a letter to Haaland last year, they recalled being sent to schools across Utah and Arizona where they had their hair cut and were their mouths washed out with soap.
“You take the people out of their home, it just breaks the heart,” Dawes said.
She talked about how the trauma of boarding schools remains in families, stretching through generations. She still feels scared on Sundays now, the day she was removed from her parents when she was a kid.
Jakub said that’s what she experienced, too. She was raised on the Navajo Nation and forced to go to a boarding school in Kayenta, Arizona, as a young girl.
“It was the government that put me there,” she said.
Her parents, she said, couldn’t afford to travel to pick her up during winter break, so she and a few other kids would be left at the school even longer.
When students broke the rules, they were often made to stand on their knees in a corner for hours. They’d cry from the pain, but the teachers wouldn’t let them sit. The educators would often embarrass the children on purpose, too, Jakub said.
She remained at the school through sixth grade.
Before her, Jakub said, the same happened to her father. He was working on his family’s farm when a government official came and took him from his home. Her father, Jakub added, had prided himself on his long hair. It was cut immediately at the school.
That trauma stayed with him, she said. In old age, as his memory faded, he’d often ask what happened to his hair.
She stood in front of signs that said, “Every child matters.”
The panelists asked how many of the attendees in the room had also been made to go to a boarding school. More than 30 hands went up in the crowd of 50 people.
A few wiped tears from their eyes as they listened. Jakub cried from the front of the room before she sang a traditional healing song.
“Our people have been through so much,” she said. “And it’s hard because a lot of them have struggled through to this day. But we can survive. We are strong people.”
Part of surviving, she added, for those who want to, can be recognizing and sharing what they went through.