A US government investigation into the dark history of Native American boarding schools found “marked or unmarked burial sites” on 53 of them, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday.
Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, announced the inquiry last year. As she released preliminary findings at a press conference in Washington, she spoke through tears and in a hushed voice.
“Federal policies that attempted to obliterate Indigenous identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain that tribal communities experience today,” Haaland said. “We need to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past.”
Until Wednesday, the US government had yet to report on the legacy of the schools, which used education to change culture so that tribal lands could be taken. Families were forced to send their children to school.
To compile Haaland’s report, researchers found records on 408 schools that received federal funding from 1819 to 1969, and another 89 schools that did not receive government money. About half of the schools were run by the government or supported by churches of various denominations. Scores of children were abused in schools and tens of thousands have never been heard from again, activists and researchers say.
The report notes that “endemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse” has taken place in schools and is well documented, and that so far the investigation has found more than 500 children who died while in custody. seen.
Investigators said they expected to find many more deaths.
Haaland said she is embarking on a year-long “healing journey” tour to listen to survivors of the boarding school system. The survey’s next goals are to estimate the number of children who attended the schools, find more burial sites, and identify how much federal money went to churches that participated in the school system, among other questions.
She said Congress provided $7 million to continue research this year, which she said was fundamental to helping Native Americans heal.
Experts said the first investigation report barely scratched the surface of what needs to be investigated.
The Department of the Interior has identified more than 98 million pages of records that may relate to the boarding school system within the American Indian Records Repository that have yet to be assessed. Tens of millions of additional pages hosted by regional branches of the National Archives and Records Administration also need to be reviewed.
A former New Mexico congresswoman, Haaland, introduced legislation in 2020 calling for a truth and healing commission under the conditions of former Native American boarding schools. That legislation is still pending, and hearings on the most recent version of the bill are scheduled for Thursday before a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
Deborah Parker, head of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition which is assisting the Department of the Interior with its investigation, said the report only scratches the surface of the trauma.
“Our children had names. Our children had families. Our children have their own language,” she said at the press conference. “Our children had their own insignia, prayers and religion before residential schools violently took them away.”
Researchers reviewed government records and spoke to Native Americans to prepare the report. The findings detail a history dating back to at least 1801, when the first such schools opened, and in which education was used as a weapon.
Native American affairs, including education, were the responsibility of the War Department until 1849, and the military remained involved even after civilians took over, the report noted.
The schools have been described as resembling military academies in their regimentation and rigor and emphasizing vocational skills. The police were called in to force the families to send their children to school. Food was denied to families as another means of forcing them to surrender their children.
“These conditions included militarized and identity-altering methodologies – on children!” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Home Office, who is leading the investigation.
Conditions at former Indian residential schools drew worldwide attention last year when tribal leaders in Canada announced the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Children’s Residential School, as these institutions are known in Canada.
Unlike the United States, Canada conducted a full investigation of its schools through a Truth and Reconciliation Inquiry.
The US government has never acknowledged how many children attended these schools, how many children died or went missing, or even how many schools existed.
The report released Wednesday included recommendations to fund programs to preserve Native American languages that schools have tried to eradicate and to establish a federal memorial.