Montana Indigenous boarding school remembrance resolution clears Senate hurdle

Final Senate vote on SJ6 expected Friday

By: - February 2, 2023 5:32 pm
Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, presents her SJ6 to the Senate on second reading on Feb. 2, 2023. The measure would call on Congress to create a national day of remembrance for children who died at Indian boarding schools.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, presents her SJ6 to the Senate on second reading on Feb. 2, 2023. The measure would call on Congress to create a national day of remembrance for children who died at Indian boarding schools. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

A Montana resolution that seeks to push Congress to designate a day of remembrance for children who died at Indigenous boarding schools across the country cleared a key hurdle in the state Senate on Thursday.

Senate Joint Resolution 6, sponsored by Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, passed second reading in a 45-5 vote and is poised to head to the House after another vote expected on Friday.

Webber, from the Blackfeet reservation, started her full presentation on the resolution to the Senate by reading off the names, ages and tribal affiliations of a dozen Indigenous children from Montana who died at the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School, which was operational from 1892 to 1910. Some of the children there were as young as 4 years old, she said.

As she did in the resolution’s committee hearing, she talked about how she and generations of women in her family going back to her great grandmother attended the schools, experiences which she said had lasting and generational effects on her and her family.

That was the case for thousands of other Indigenous families in Montana, Webber said, as many of them were forced to send their children to the schools in order to receive food and other rations from the federal government.

“My family isn’t unique,” Webber said.

At the schools, the government worked to assimilate the children into white culture and strip them of their Native languages and heritage, according to a May 2022 Department of Interior report that was the first stemming from an ongoing investigation into the boarding schools and the abuse and deaths of children sent to them.

The report identified 18 boarding schools in Montana out of 408 nationwide. At the schools across the country, investigators found 53 different burial sites.

“Now, I understand historical trauma. But it can be broken,” Webber said. “With this, I ask you to please pass SJ6 and ask the U.S. government to recognize the trauma that they inflicted upon the Montana Indian communities and their children and ask for a day of remembrance for their children that passed away in custody.”

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, who is Salish and Kootenai, said it was important for lawmakers especially to understand the history of the boarding schools so they can better represent all Montanans. He said much of the history of the schools was not taught in schools and Montanans generally do not have a solid understanding of what occurred.

He said his grandmother was sexually abused at the boarding school in St. Ignatius and had to cope with the harm the rest of her life.

“I think this resolution makes a lot of sense, and shows and signals that we are recognizing this history,” he said. “We are showing that we understand this history and that we’re going to support and recognize the great pain and hardships that a lot of these young people endured.”

Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, voted in favor of the resolution and said she visited the Intermountain Indian School near Brigham City, Utah, when she was in 4-H and saw the “really sad” realities of the schools, which she said stuck with her through the years.

“It was such an eye-opener,” she said. “I had to stand and tell you that people knew what was going on, and yet they did not treat people with the dignity and the compassion that they should have treated them.”

McKamey said she learned that Indigenous families were told their children would be fed and receive a good education and proper treatment.

“I wanted to really believe that, and I’m so sorry that that’s not what happened,” she said.

A short time later, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the resolution on second reading. It will have to clear a final vote in the Senate on Friday before it is sent to the House for consideration.

The five senators who voted against the measure were Sens. Becky Beard, R-Elliston; Mike Lang, R-Malta; Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls; Barry Usher, R-Laurel; and Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.