Duluth City Council calls for Native American boarding school inquiry

A resolution asks for a Congressional investigation and possible redress.

A photo taken in the early 20th century of a girls sewing class at the Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, South Dakota. Contributed / South Dakota Historical Society - State Archives

After lengthy and often emotional testimony from members of the Northland's Indigenous community, the Duluth City Council passed a resolution Monday night acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by years of a federal policy that separated Native American children from their families, sent them away to boarding schools and sought to scrub them of their Indigenous heritage.

Ray "Skip" Sandman said his mother was taken away from her family at age 6 and sent to boarding school. She was unable to return until after her 18th birthday, and Sandman said that by then, the damage had been done.

"She had lost her language. She had lost her culture. She had lost her belief in being Native," he said.

As a boy, Sandman recalls asking his mother to teach him about their native language and culture.


Ray Skip Sandman
Ray "Skip" Sandman Clint Austin / 2018 file / Duluth News Tribune

"She would look at me, and she would kind of get a tear in her eye, and she would say: 'My boy, my son, you don't need that language. All it's going to bring you is trouble and hatred within your life if you learn to speak it."

Sandman said he struggled to understand her cultural heartbreak. "As a young man, It was like trying to figure out what would cause my mother, who I've always seen as very strong, strong-willed and outspoken, to cower back from being able to express and talk about who she is as an individual, an Anishinaabe."

SEE ALSO: Duluth celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day

Sandman doubts his mother was ever able to fully share the pain of being deprived of her heritage.

"She brought that secret and that pain and that suffering and that torture to her grave, without sharing her story with the rest of the world that now seems a little bit interested in hearing" the truth, he said.

The recent discovery of hundreds of Native children in unmarked graves at boarding schools in Canada has led to an inquiry in that country and renewed calls for the U.S. to explore its own policies of sending Indigenous children away to schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native tongues or honor their cultures.

A resolution passed by the Duluth City Council on Monday night requests that Congress acknowledge the intergenerational trauma inflicted on Indigenous people by the compulsory boarding school system that tore children away from their parents.


Christina Woods urged the City Council to support the resolution, saying: "I want to urge you to vote 'yes' on this resolution. It means so much to me, my relatives in my past, my relatives here now and most importantly my relatives that are yet to come and are waiting to come."

Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett welcomes people attending the opening of the β€œWater Is Life ⏀ Stop Line 3” festival Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett, who is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, brought forward the resolution, with support from fellow councilors Terese Tomanek and Arik Forsman. She said the resolution "brings up hard things."

"People get uncomfortable with the language that's in here, and I acknowledge that. I acknowledge it might be hard for people to hear it and maybe don't want to deal with it. But I think we can do that. And I think it's time to do that," she said.


Forsman said he was embarrassed to admit that until age 33, he had been unaware of the damage inflicted by an Native American boarding school system which operated in the U.S. from 1871 to the 1970s, with as many as six Indigenous boarding schools operating in Minnesota alone.
"I know that we can't fix this. But we can acknowledge that it happened," he said.

Forsman referred to the resolution as an easy measure to support "to study the sins of the past, so that we don't repeat them."


The resolution passed 8-0, with 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy absent.

This story originally incorrectly reported the first name of Ray "Skip" Sandman. It was corrected at 8:42 a.m. Oct. 12. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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