Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled legislation on Thursday that would establish a formal commission to document the U.S. government’s ugly, decades-spanning policy of removing Native American children from tribal lands and forcing them into boarding schools to assimilate them into white culture.
The bill, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, would put a spotlight on what exactly the government did to try to wipe out Indigenous peoples’ cultures, religions and languages.
The commission would provide a forum for Native people to speak about their families’ personal experiences with boarding school atrocities, and would come up with recommendations for Congress to help Indigenous people heal from the “historical and intergenerational trauma” passed down in their families.
“The Indian Boarding School Policies are a stain in America’s history, and it’s long overdue that the federal government reckon with this history and its legacy,” Warren said in a statement. “These policies and practices caused unimaginable suffering and trauma for survivors, victims, and the thousands of Native families who remain impacted by them.”
Here’s a copy of her bill:
Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, are introducing an identical bill in the House.
Cole said creating such a commission will help people to heal “from one of our nation’s darkest periods.”
“While we cannot erase this difficult chapter in our history, studying and understanding the societal, cultural and personal impact of forcibly removing Native American and Alaskan Native children from their homes, families, communities and heritage for nearly a century is certainly worth investigating,” he said. “I am proud to support the creation of this investigative commission to provide answers for these communities.”
The legislation has a number of co-sponsors in both chambers ― all of them Democrats except for one House Republican, Rep. Don Young of Alaska.
The timing of the bill’s introduction coincides with Thursday being National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools.
The purpose of the boarding schools, which the U.S. government funded from 1869 through the 1960s, was cultural genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend faraway 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 society.
They also endured horrific physical, sexual and psychological abuse, and many of them died. Parents were banned from speaking to their children, and faced reductions in food rations, and sometimes incarceration, if they didn’t comply.
By 1926, the U.S. government had removed nearly 83% of Native children from their families and enrolled them in one of the 367 boarding schools across 30 states.
The Interior Department still operates residential boarding schools through the Bureau of Indian Education, but they’re very different today. Indigenous children at these schools are now encouraged “to practice their spirituality, learn their language and carry their culture forward,” according to the Interior Department.
Warren’s legislation builds on an effort by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to examine what happened at these schools. In June, Haaland launched a first-of-its-kind comprehensive review of the “devastating history” of Indian boarding schools. The project intends to investigate past boarding school facilities and sites, the location of known and possible sites near school facilities where Indigenous children were buried, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were taken there.
Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, was a previous sponsor of this legislation when she served in Congress. She has 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 in June. “The same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language, our spiritual practices, and our people.”