Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will introduce legislation Tuesday to make the federal government address the “intergenerational trauma” it has caused for Native Americans with its former Indian boarding school policy, a nearly century-long policy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from tribal lands and putting them into boarding schools to be assimilated into white culture.
Their bill, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act, would create a first-of-its-kind U.S. commission to document and acknowledge the past injustices of the government’s “cultural genocide and assimilation practices.” The commission would enlist Congress to come up with recommendations for improving public awareness and education on the government’s former policy.
The issue is personal for Haaland, who is one of just two Native American women to ever serve in Congress. Her grandparents were taken away to attend boarding schools.
“Native people are resilient and strong, but the painful and traumatic history of genocide and forced assimilation by the federal government lives on in our communities and our people have never been able to fully heal,” Haaland said in a statement. “I know not many people are aware of the history of Indian boarding schools, and I know it’s not taught in schools ― but our country must do better to acknowledge our real history and push for truth and reconciliation.”
Here’s the text of the bill:
The timing of the bill’s introduction is intentional: It is in response to President Donald Trump announcing this month that he would sign an executive order encouraging schools to give students a “patriotic education,” one that doesn’t teach “lies” about the country being “plagued with racism.”
It was an entirely political move on Trump’s part; the federal government does not control local school curriculums. He announced his executive action after a decision by some school districts to teach history in a more honest and even-handed way, as outlined by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which reframes the narrative of U.S. history in the context of slavery and contributions of Black Americans.
The boarding school policy, which the federal government funded from 1869 into the 1960s, forcibly removed nearly 83% of Native children from their families and enrolled them in one of 367 boarding schools across 30 states. The schools were designed to assimilate the children, as young as 5 years old, into white culture by stripping them of their cultural identities, often leading to physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Parents were banned from visiting or speaking to them, and refusals to comply led to a loss of food rations and clothing and sometimes to incarceration.
Haaland and Warren say their bill is a starting point for improving public awareness and education of the policy, which the vast majority of Americans never learned about in school. Native communities still experience trauma from the policy, and there is a general lack of public understanding of the government’s cultural genocide of Native Americans, according to a 2018 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on the subject.
“The Indian Boarding School Policy is a stain in America’s history,” Warren said in a statement. “It’s long overdue that justice is sought for victims of this policy who suffered unimaginable harm and thousands of Native families who remain impacted by this policy.”
It’s not clear whether the legislation will go anywhere. The bill has bipartisan support in the House, including two Republican co-sponsors, Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin. But in addition to being painfully polarized, Congress is increasingly focused on the 2020 elections and running short on time. Lawmakers will be leaving town soon to focus on their reelection campaigns.
Haaland spokeswoman Felicia Salazar said it’s not clear yet whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will give the bill a vote this year.
“We are working on it,” Salazar said.