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Anita Yellowhair, Survivor of Arizona Boarding School, Shares Story after 60 Years

*A little girl, around 10 years old, is forced to leave her home she calls a hogan. She doesn’t bring much except the dress she was wearing and about 50 cents in her pocket. Her mother, father, and grandparents watch her ride away in a car for the very first time. She is sent away in silence.

She arrives where other buses are prepared to leave. The little girl notices children who look like her but they don’t speak to one another. She looks in awe at everybody’s suitcases and beautiful clothes. Nonetheless, they all enter the same Greyhound bus together.

Once they are all boarded, the bus starts and terrifies the children — they’ve never heard anything like it in their lives. All the children are greeted in a foreign language and given directions they don’t understand. They never expected what was to come.*

“I didn’t know where I was going. Pretty soon it got dark. Traveling all night. And some of us have to go potty. We didn’t know where the potty was,” Anita Yellowhair said.

It was 1950. Anita Yellowhair, of Arizona, was one of thousands of children taken from their home to one of more than 400 boarding schools in the U.S. where they would learn how to live the white man’s way – a way of life imposed onto Native Americans by white people that would strip them of their language, culture, and identity in a government-sanctioned effort to assimilate them into Western culture.

Yellowhair, who is Navajo, spent 10 years of school at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah.

It left its mark. On Yellowhair. On my mother. And on me, her granddaughter. For years I didn’t know the depths of her story but now I am telling it. Years of my grandmother’s silence, now given voice, with steps toward healing.

My grandmother is a boarding school survivor.

*Yellowhair lived on the Navajo Nation reservation in a place called Steamboat. Here, her family lived off of sheep and hard work in a home called a hogan.

This hogan had dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity for their small family. They relied on their sheep for food and traveled far for water.

Winters were hard for their family as it would be very cold, with only sheep skin to keep them warm.

Although this life may have seemed hard to some, Yellowhair was happy. She loved to spend time with her sheep and dogs as she lay in fields, feeling the wind on her face.*

“I was happy the way life was,” Yellowhair said. “But then they said this is not a good life.”

“The white man pointed to his chest,” Yellowhair said. “He said, ‘Do you want to be like me?’ ”

Yellowhair was sent away to Intermountain Indian School, which became the largest Indian boarding school in the U.S.

At the time she was sent away, she spoke Navajo. Only English was allowed to be spoken at the school, but she didn’t even know what that was.

When she did choose to speak in her Native language she was punished.

Read entire article at Arizona Public Media