Report Catalogs Abuse of Native American Children at Former Government Schools

An initial investigation commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland cataloged some of the brutal conditions…

An initial investigation commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland cataloged some of the brutal conditions that Native American children endured at more than 400 boarding schools that the federal government forced them to attend between 1819 and 1969. The inquiry was an initial step, Ms. Haaland said, toward addressing the “intergenerational trauma” that the policy left behind.

An Interior Department report released on Wednesday highlighted the abuse of many of the children at the government-run schools, with instances of beatings, withholding of food and solitary confinement. It also identified burial sites at more than 50 of the former schools, and said that “approximately 19 federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian child deaths.” The number of recorded deaths is expected to grow, the report said.

The report is the first step in a comprehensive review that Ms. Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, announced in June after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who attended similar schools in Canada provoked a national reckoning there.

Beginning in 1869 and until the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes and families and placed in the boarding schools, which were operated by the government and churches.

There were 20,000 children at the schools by 1900; by 1925, the number had more than tripled, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

The discovery of the unmarked graves in Canada last year — 215 in British Columbia, 750 more in Saskatchewan — led Ms. Haaland to announce that her agency would search the grounds of former schools in the United States and identify any remains. Ms. Haaland’s grandparents attended such schools.

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Ms. Haaland said during a news conference. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

The 106-page report, put together by Bryan Newland, the agency’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, concludes that further investigation is needed to better understand the lasting effects of the boarding school system on American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Assimilation was only one of the system’s goals, the report said; the other was “territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children.”

Mr. Newland said there is not a single American Indian, Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian in the country whose life has not been affected by the schools.

“Federal Indian boarding schools have had a lasting impact on Native people and communities across America,” said Mr. Newland. “That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakup of families and tribal nations to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives.”

The government has yet to provide a forum or opportunity for survivors or descendants of survivors of the boarding schools or their families to describe their experiences at the schools. In attempts to assimilate Native American children, the schools gave them English names, cut their hair and forbade them from speaking their languages and practicing their religions or cultural traditions.

Deborah Parker, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said the children who died at government-run boarding schools deserve to be identified and their remains brought home. Ms. Parker said the efforts to find them won’t end until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native American children.

“Our children had names, our children had families, our children had their own languages, our children had their own regalia, prayers and religions before Indian Boarding Schools violently took them away,” Ms. Parker said.

Sitting with Ms. Haaland at the news conference was Jim Labelle, a survivor who spent 10 years in a government-run boarding school. Mr. Labelle said he was eight years old when he started there. His brother was six.

“I learned everything about the European American culture,” he said. “It’s history, language, civilizations, math, science, but I didn’t know anything about who I was. As a native person, I came out not knowing who I was.”

Ms. Haaland also announced plans for a yearlong, cross-country tour called The Road to Healing, during which survivors of the boarding school system could share their stories.

The Canadian government has initiated similar efforts and allocated about 320 million Canadian dollars for communities affected by the boarding school system, burial site searches and commemoration for victims.

Beth Wright, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said she hopes Congress passes two bills currently pending in the House and Senate and truly listens to any victim who may speak up.

“I think the key next step is really communicating with tribal nations and survivors of Indian boarding schools to see how this support is impacting their communities,” Ms. Wright said. “We would like to see tribal communities generate their healing effort and their efforts toward truth and reconciliation.”

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