The Seattle city council is officially urging the federal government to examine its human rights record. On Monday, all nine council members voted unanimously to acknowledge "claimed acts of genocide" in the US government's American Indian boarding school policy.
The Seattle city council may be the first non-tribal government in the United States to recognize the damage federal boarding school policy wreaked on generations of Native American families, according to Native American Rights Fund staff attorney Brett Lee Shelton. From the late-19th century into the 1970s, the United States pursued a policy of separating Native American children from their families and institutionalizing them in militarized boarding schools. An estimated 100,000 children were placed in institutions that attempted to strip them of their language, culture, and religion, and many were abused.
Canada, which modeled its residential school policy after the United States' boarding schools, has acknowledged that its policies amounted to cultural genocide and is paying reparations to the survivors. In 2012, the UN released a report chastising the United States for its treatment of its indigenous people.
"This trauma has to be addressed in order to heal, in order to move past this trauma," Sweetwater Nannauck, a Tlingit storyteller and Idle No More activist, told the city council at Monday's meeting. When the council voted to approve the resolution, the entire room erupted in applause.
The city council's resolution urges Seattle Public Schools to teach students about the American Indian boarding school era, asks Congress and the White House to accept responsibility for the policy's harms, and supports a federal reconciliation process similar to Canada's.
"Indian children were taken to schools but that's about as much as [most people] know," said Don Wharton, legal counsel to the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. "They don't understand that the policy behind that was a policy of deliberate cultural genocide... It's a first important step in a lot of ways to beginning the dialogue that's necessary to move forward with a real healing process—not just for the Native people who were the victims of the policy, but for the majority culture as well, for their legacy as the perpetrators. It’s an opportunity for everyone to step up and learn from it and heal from it."
"I'm almost speechless that this [resolution] has come before us, and it's long overdue," Council Member John Okamoto told the supporters of the resolution who had gathered at City Hall. Council Member Kshama Sawant asked her colleagues to "start preparing for the next steps in our struggle" and said she hopes that the federal government will abolish Columbus Day—now Indigenous Peoples' Day in Seattle—nationally.
Read the full text of the resolution here.