Accounting sought for students who went missing

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FARMINGTON — A national coalition is seeking testimonies from Navajo families who have missing relatives or relatives who disappeared while attending a government-operated boarding school.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is working with the International Indian Treaty Council and the Native American Rights Fund to file a submission to the United Nations that calls on the United States to provide a full accounting of Native American and Alaska Native children placed in boarding schools and whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

The coalition is a membership organization that represents more than 80 Native and non-Native members and organizations that are committed to the mission of healing communities from boarding school abuse and violence.

A study by the UN about indigenous people and boarding schools states the system was developed to assimilate indigenous peoples into the dominant society.

Many Native American children in the United States were forcibly abducted from homes to attend Christian and federally operated boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, where many sustained emotional, physical and sexual abuse, the UN report states.

Janene Yazzie is the field consultant for the Navajo Nation for the coalition, which was incorporated as a nonprofit by the tribe in June 2012.

The coalition seeks to hold operators of boarding schools accountable, as well as deliver closure to families, she said.

"It is strongly motivated by the conviction that families have the right to know what happened to their loved ones so they can begin to heal from the era of boarding school abuses that affected every indigenous community," Yazzie said.

As part of Yazzie's work, she is collecting testimonies from Navajo families who have experienced this situation, and the statements will be included in the filing to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

According to the website for the UN working group, one of its primary tasks is to assist families in determining the fate or whereabouts of family members who are reportedly disappeared.

Yazzie said if the proposal is accepted, the UN working group would serve as liaison between families and the federal government in seeking answers to what happened to the missing relatives.

In circumstances in which the student died while attending boarding school, that could help in locating and repatriating the remains to families or tribes, she added.

The coalition started collecting testimonies from tribal members in June and plans to submit documentation to the UN by the end of the year.

For more information about the call for testimonies or to submit statements, contact Yazzie at janene.y@sixth-world.com.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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