By Karen Stokes
An initial investigation commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland explored the brutal conditions that Native American children endured at more than 400 boarding schools that the federal government forced them to attend between 1819 and 1969.
Advocates have researched this for decades and have repeatedly called for official recognition and documentation. Last year, Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna whose grandparents survived boarding schools, ordered a formal investigation to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences.”
“The inquiry was an initial step toward addressing the “intergenerational trauma” that the policy left behind,” Haaland said in a New York Times interview.
A report released on Wednesday, May 11th from the Interior Department highlighted the abuse of children at the government-run schools with instances of beatings, abuse, withholding of food and solitary confinement.
It also identified burial sites at more than 50 of the former schools, and said that approximately 19 federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian child deaths.” The number of recorded deaths is expected to grow, according to the report.
Beginning in 1869 and until the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes and families and placed in boarding schools operated by the government and several denominations of the Christian church.
The report found as early as 1803 the government has been involved in strategies to mistreat the Native American population.
A confidential message authored by President Thomas Jefferson to Congress was revealed concerning a strategy to take the territories from the Indian Tribes in part through assimilation.
According to the report, Jefferson believed “a policy of assimilation would make it easier and less costly in lives and funding for the United States to separate Indian Tribes from their territories.”
It was these suggestions that went on to create Federal Indian law and policy.
There were 20,000 children at the schools by 1900; by 1925, the number had more than tripled, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
The discovery of the unmarked graves in Canada last year — 215 in British Columbia, 750 more in Saskatchewa motivated Haaland to announce that her agency would search the grounds of former schools in the United States and identify any remains. Haaland’s grandparents attended government-run boarding schools.
From 1819 to 1969, the report found, the US operated 408 schools across 37 states (originally territories). Schools stretched as far as Alaska, which had at least 21, and Hawaii.
Oklahoma had the largest number, with 76, followed by Arizona and New Mexico. The government often used money held in federal trust accounts for Indian tribes to pay for the costs of taking and culturally dismantling Native Americans.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said during a news conference. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”
According to the 106 page report, Assimilation was only one of the system’s goals. The other was “territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children.”
To assimilate Native American children, the schools gave them English names, cut their hair and forbid them from speaking their languages, practicing their religions or cultural traditions. Similar to what was done to the stolen African population forced into slavery.
The concerted effort to keep buried America’s historical cruelty towards both Native Americans and African Americans cannot continue. The stories of what was done to these two groups are barbaric without regard to human life.
“Federal Indian boarding schools have had a lasting impact on Native people and communities across America,” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs. “That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakup of families and tribal nations to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives.”
Deborah Parker, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said the children who died at government-run boarding schools deserve to be identified and their remains brought home. Parker said the efforts to find them won’t end until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native American children.
“Our children had names, our children had families, our children had their own languages, our children had their own regalia, prayers and religions before Indian Boarding Schools violently took them away,” Ms. Parker said.
The Indigenous have a voice and are speaking up loud and proud with these inquiries.
“It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” Haaland said.