FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for over a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children into white society has identified more than 400 such schools that were supported by the U.S. government and more than 50 associated burial sites, a figure that could grow exponentially as research continues.
Interior Department’s Wednesday report expands the list of schools known to have been in operation for over 150 years. This includes the period between the 19th and 20th centuries, when many of the tribes were expelled from their ancestral lands.
The dark history of the boarding schools — where children who were taken from their families were prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations.
Many children have never been home since their deaths. Although the investigation so far has revealed more than 500 deaths in 19 schools, the Interior Department stated that this number could rise to thousands or even tens thousands.
“Many of those children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites far from their Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and families, often hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away,” the report said.
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A second volume of the report will cover the burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said.
“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,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the government’s role in them. Her agency found 408 schools in 37 US states and territories. Many of these were located in New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
Interior Department admitted that the number identified schools could increase or decrease as new data is collected. The coronavirus pandemic and budget restrictions hindered some of the research over the last year, said Bryan Newland, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
So far, the Department has found 53 sites of burial near or at U.S. Boarding Schools (both marked and unmarked).
Some boarding schools were run by the U.S. government. Catholic, Protestant and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies to “civilize” Native Americans.
An investigation by Interior Department revealed that there were hundreds of graves unmarked at Canadian former residential schools. This brought back painful memories in Indigenous communities.
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Haaland announced Wednesday the start of an Interior Department tour that will take former boarders from Native American tribes, Alaska Native village and Native Hawaiian communities on a year-long basis. The purpose is to allow them to tell their stories for a permanent oral historian collection.
“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,” she said.
Conditions at board schools vary across Canada and the U.S. Although some students had positive experiences, others reported that they were often subject to military-style discipline. They also received long hair cuts.
The early curricula emphasized outdated skills such as homemaking and other vocational skills.
Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure that any children’s remains that are found are properly cared for and delivered back to their tribes, if desired. The burial sites’ locations will not be released publicly to prevent them from being disturbed, Newland said.
Accounting for the whereabouts of children who died has been difficult because records weren’t always kept. Some places have used ground penetration radar to find remains.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which created an early inventory of the schools, has said Interior’s work will be an important step for the U.S. in reckoning with its role in the schools but noted that the agency’s authority is limited.
A U.S. House Subcommittee will be hearing testimony about a bill that would create a Truth and Healing Commission, a model after the one found in Canada. A number of church groups support the legislation.
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