The federal government will investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools and work to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of policies that over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced this week.
The unprecedented work will include compiling and reviewing records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students, she said.
“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.
A member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland outlined the initiative while addressing members of the National Congress of American Indians during the group’s midyear conference.
She said the process will be long, difficult and painful and will not undo the heartbreak and loss endured by many families.
Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.
Haaland talked about the federal government’s attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language and culture and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental health issues and substance abuse.
The decision to investigate the past abuses comes amid recent discoveries of mass graves near some of Canada’s largest boarding schools.
Indigenous leaders said this week that 600 or more remains were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School, which operated from 1899 to 1997 in the province of Saskatchewan. Last month, some 215 remains were reported at a similar school in British Columbia.
In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
After reading about the unmarked graves in British Columbia, Haaland recounted her own family’s story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.
Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on U.S. boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.
Interior Department officials said aside from trying to shed more light on the loss of life at the boarding schools, they will be working to protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.
As part of the initiative, a final report from agency staff is due by April 1, 2022.