Deb Haaland Launches Review of 'Devastating' Native American Boarding Schools

The Interior Department probe will identify Indigenous children who died at schools the U.S. government forced them into for assimilation into white culture.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday that she is launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative, a first-of-its-kind comprehensive review of the “devastating history” of the U.S. government’s policy of forcing Native American children into boarding schools for assimilation into white culture.

“At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects,” Haaland said in remarks at a National Congress of American Indians conference. “We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools.”

Under the new initiative, the Interior Department will investigate past boarding school facilities and sites, the location of known and possible burial sites near school facilities, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were taken there. The effort also serves as a starting point for improving public awareness of the former policy, which most Americans never learned about in school.

Here’s a copy of Haaland’s secretarial memo, which directs the Interior Department to prepare a report detailing available historical records, with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites, relating to the federal boarding school program. Investigators must submit a final report to Haaland by April 1, 2022.

The point of the boarding schools, which the U.S. government funded from 1869 into the 1960s, was cultural genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken away from their families and forced into faraway boarding schools to be assimilated into white culture. They weren’t allowed to speak their native languages. Their hair was cut off. They were dressed in clothes considered acceptable in white culture.

They also endured horrific levels of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Many died. Their parents were banned from speaking to them, and if they didn’t comply, they faced reductions in food rations and sometimes incarceration.

By 1926, the U.S. government had removed nearly 83% of Native children from their families and enrolled them in one of 367 boarding schools across 30 states.

The Interior Department still operates residential boarding schools through the Bureau of Indian Education, but they don’t resemble the schools of the past. Indigenous children are encouraged “to practice their spirituality, learn their language and carry their culture forward” in modern-day boarding schools, according to the Interior Department.

“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policy carried out by the same department that I now lead.”

- Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

Haaland said Tuesday that it is long past time to address the “intergenerational trauma” that continues to haunt Indigenous people. Just this week, authorities announced that the remains of 10 more Native children who died at a former Pennsylvania-based boarding school were being disinterred and returned to their relatives. Last month, the bodies of more than 200 Indigenous children were found at a former boarding school in Canada.

The news of the 200-plus bodies of children being discovered in Canada is what prompted the interior secretary to launch the initiative.

“Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose, because forced assimilation policies ended their lives too soon,” said Haaland.

“I thought of my own child, who carries this generational trauma with them. I thought of my grandmother, who told me about the pain and loneliness she endured when the trains took her away from her family to boarding school…. Our communities are still mourning.”

Haaland, who is the nation’s first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary, acknowledged the irony of being in charge of the federal agency that once ripped apart families like hers.

“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policy carried out by the same department that I now lead,” she said. “The same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language, our spiritual practices, and our people.”

The point of digging into the ugly history of the boarding school era at all, she added, is to begin to heal.

“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel,” said Haaland. “But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

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