Flagstaff, Arizona, United States
A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for more than a century sought to assimilate Native children into white society identified more than 500 student deaths at the facilities, but officials say this figure could grow exponentially as research continues. .
The Interior Department report released Wednesday brings to more than 400 the number of schools known to have operated in the United States for 150 years, beginning in the early 19th century and coinciding with the removal of many tribes from their lands ancestral. He identified the deaths in the records of about 20 of the schools.
A makeshift memorial to the dozens of Native children who died over a century ago while attending a boarding school that was once located nearby is displayed under a tree in a public park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the July 1, 2021. IMAGE: AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan/File Photo.
The dark history of Native American boarding schools — where children were kicked out of their families, forbidden to speak their language, and often abused — has been deeply felt across Indian Country and across generations.
Many children never returned home and the Home Office said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could reach into the thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes included illness, accidental injury and abuse, officials said.
“Each of these children is a missing family member, a person who has not been able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they have lost their lives in this terrible system,” the secretary said. ‘Inside Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years when I was a child.
The agency is digging through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of documents, with the help of many Indigenous people who have had to overcome their own trauma and pain. It will be difficult to count the number of deaths because records have not always been kept.
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in schools and the impacts of boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said. It has so far identified at least 53 burial sites in or near boarding schools, not all of which have marked graves.
Tribal leaders have urged the agency to ensure that the remains of children found are properly taken care of and returned to their tribes, if desired. The locations of burial sites will not be made public to prevent them from being disturbed, said Bryan Newland, deputy secretary of the Home Office for Indian Affairs.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Haaland choked back tears as she described how the era of boarding schools has perpetuated poverty, mental health disorders, addictions and premature deaths in Indigenous communities.
“Recognizing the impacts of the federal residential school system cannot simply be a historical calculation,” she said. “We also need to chart a course to deal with these legacy issues.”
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. The 408 schools identified by his agency operated in 37 states or territories, including many in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Home Office acknowledged that the number of schools identified could change as more data is collected. The coronavirus pandemic and budget restrictions have hampered some of the research over the past year, Newland said.
Handprints painted red cover the empty spot of a park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Thursday, July 1, 2021, where a historical marker for Native children who died while attending a nearby boarding school was deleted. PHOTO: AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan/File Photo.
The US government directly operated some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant, and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies aimed at “civilizing” Native Americans. The federal government still oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states that serve Native Americans, but the schools’ missions are very different from the past.
The Interior Department’s report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.
Haaland also announced a year-long tour for Department of the Interior officials on Wednesday that will allow former residents of Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent collection of oral history.
Boarding school conditions varied across the United States and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, school children were often subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut.
Early programs focused heavily on outdated job skills, including housework for girls.
On Thursday, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled on Canada’s. Several religious groups support the legislation.
Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, tearfully recalled stories of a boarding school on the Tulalip reservation where she is from that had a small jail cell and a basement where at least one girl was regularly chained to a radiator and beaten. She said others were hiding to protect themselves from abuse.
“I get worried when we start opening those doors for our boarding school survivors to come forward and share their stories,” she said.
The Boarding Schools Coalition, which created an initial inventory of schools and shared its research with the Home Office, praised the Home Office’s work but noted that the agency’s authority is limited.
“Our kids deserve to be brought home,” Parker said. “We are here for their justice. And we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Indigenous children.