In Rohnert Park, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland hears stories of Bay Area survivors of federal Indian boarding schools

Deb Haaland and her team documented what they heard Sunday as part of “The Road to Healing,” a cross-country tour to provide survivors an opportunity to share their experiences.|

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland listened intently Sunday as survivors of federal Indian boarding schools and their descendants told her their stories during her stop at the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park.

Their accounts were filled with pain and grim memories, unanswered questions and the lingering anger shared by generations of Native Americans who have to grapple with the legacy of federal boarding schools.

Haaland and her team documented what they heard Sunday as part of “The Road to Healing,” a cross-country tour to provide survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system and their descendants an opportunity to share their experiences, as well as “help connect communities with trauma-informed support, and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history,” according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Sunday’s session in Rohnert Park was hosted by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

The Indian boarding schools were funded and supported by the Department of Interior. From 1819 through the 1970s, thousands of Native children were forced from their homes and into militant educational settings across the U.S. in an effort to assimilate them and strip them of their language, traditions and spirit.

This program coincided with tribal land dispossession. Those who didn’t comply were often jailed or killed.

Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo tribal member from New Mexico and the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary, has been affected by the federal Indian boarding school system herself, as the granddaughter of two survivors.

“Deeply ingrained in so many of us is the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted upon our people,” she said to the audience gathered at the casino on Sunday. “My ancestors and many of yours endured the horrors of the Indian boarding schools’ assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead.”

“The Road to Healing” is the second part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which Haaland launched in June 2021 with the goal of addressing the intergenerational trauma caused by these boarding schools.

She acknowledged that the tour is just one step in the long process of healing.

According to a report compiled under the leadership of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland as part of Haaland’s work, there were 12 federal Indian boarding schools in California, six of which were north of San Francisco including the Round Valley Boarding School in Covelo and the St. Turibius Mission Boarding and Day School in Kelseyville.

Many Bay Area children were taken to Stewart Indian School in Nevada, according to the Department of the Interior report, where some died for various reasons, including abuse and illness. They are believed to be buried in hundreds of unmarked graves.

The Department of the Interior’s investigation identified approximately 53 burial sites at former Indian boarding schools across the country. But as the investigation continues, the Department expects that number to increase.

Survivors who came to the tour stop on Sunday shared horrific stories of abuse and trauma they suffered while attending these schools.

Atta Stevenson, an elder from the Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria, in Mendocino County, who described herself as the last boarding school survivor of her tribe, said when she first got to her boarding school history class, she asked her teacher about the history of California Native Americans.

The teacher, a 6-foot-6 man, picked her up and threw her into the wall and said, ”There are no damn Indians in California,“ she recalled, adding that another time he told her, ”When we get done with you, you’ll pray to die.“

Stevenson said she went on to become a preschool teacher and later a tribal leader, but the impacts of her time in the federal Indian boarding school system still affect her.

She hates cleaning because the smell of chemicals reminds her of the boarding school bathrooms where she said Native girls were forced to fight each other. And, she said, she still wakes up without an alarm at 4 every morning, part of the military-like routines she was brought up with.

“I ran out of tears,” she said of processing the trauma she experienced. And then she turned to traditional medicine and ceremony to help her heal.

Marge Grow-Eppard, an elder of the Miwok tribe and a Vacaville resident whose Indigenous name is Sister Who Walked With Bears, was also among those at the Graton casino on Sunday. She is the president of the California chapter of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women and Persons.

She told Haaland that she found out her cousin survived the Stewart Indian School, and later visited the unmarked grave sites to pray and go on a tour.

There, she said, she learned about young girls who were rape victims and became pregnant. She said their babies were thrown out of the infirmary window, leaving them for coyotes and wolves to carry off their bones.

“There is no list of what those children's real names were and what tribes they came from,” she said.

She urged federal officials to ensure that schools teach kids the real truth of the history of California Natives, so kids can learn to take pride in their roots and end the cycle of trauma, including the Missing, Murdered Indigenous Peoples endemic.

Rose Hammock, a Santa Rosa resident who said she is a member of the Pomo and Wailacki tribes, listened to the stories Sunday along with four of her nieces and nephews.

“It’s important for us as younger people to sit and listen to our elders and learn from survivors,” she said. “It’s sad but powerful. It shows us how resilient we are.”

Jack Potter Jr., chairman of Redding Rancheria, shared a story from a tribal elder who said that her 9-year-old sister tried to escape from a Fort Bidwell Indian School after being assaulted at the school.

“She wondered how her sister felt in those last moments when she was freezing out on those plains,” Potter Jr. said. She never made it home.

“We share the stories and the pain,” he said. “We all suffered heartache.”

He said that pain has impacted generations up to this day, and kids are suffering from secondary trauma and lack of services.

Many Native elders have yet to share their stories, because of the amount of shame and embarrassment they were taught to feel, said Madonna Feather-Cruz, a Santa Rosa resident and Round Valley Indian tribes member who went to Chemawa boarding school in Salem, Oregon.

“Any time there is a voice put to the tragic traumas that we’ve endured, it’s good ― it’s shedding a light to what happened to us,” she said.

“I’m taking away the hurt, the shame, and the disrespect we’ve endured for hundreds of years,” she added. “And I want to fight.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or On Twitter @alana_minkler.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.