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Interior Department releases damning report on federal Indian boarding schools

The report describes how the schools used “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children.”

(CN) — Under brutal conditions, the federal government ran at least 408 federal Indian boarding schools around the country, where the Department of Interior has so far located 53 burial sites, according to a report released Wednesday.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, said Wednesday. “We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face.”

It’s a process that lags behind investigations in Canada that have cast light upon an estimated 3,200 unmarked graves of children held at the country’s Indian Residential Schools. Beginning in 1834, the Canadian government removed approximately 150,000 children from their families and forced them to attend one of 139 Indian Residential Schools across the country.

The Canadian government announced last August that it would spend $327 million on Indigenous-led initiatives to help communities recover from the ongoing impacts of residential schools, as part of the In 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement, which resolved the largest class action lawsuit in Canada’s history, filed by survivors of residential schools against the government and four churches. Laws in the United States setting time limits for survivors to file lawsuits prevent a similar pathway on this side of the border.

So while Canada has enacted just 13 of the 94 recommendations put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United States is at square one.

Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June of last year, just three months after she was confirmed as the first Native American to hold the position. The initiative was intended to use federal records to identify the locations of Federal Indian boarding schools, the names and tribal affiliations of the children forced to attend them, the locations of burial sites at the schools, both marked and unmarked, and to include the voices of boarding school survivors and their descendants on the ongoing impacts of the system.

The report released Wednesday, titled “Volume 1” of the series, addresses the first goal. The department was unable to go further with some of its research due to a lack of specific funding from Congress, the report notes. It names 408 Federal Boarding schools located in 37 states, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 in Hawaii. Some held up to 1,700 children at a time. The first opened in 1801 and the most recent school opening was in 1969. Some are still in operation. About half of them were funded or staffed by a church. Others were housed in active or decommissioned military sites. In some cases, money held in trust by the government for tribes and tribal members were used to fund the schools.

“Native communities are hurting every single day as a result of actions like Federal boarding schools,” said Emily Washines, a citizen of the Yakama Nation, scholar of Yakama history and co-host of the podcast War Cry, which explores cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. On her mother’s side, Washines is the first person in four generations to avoid attending an Indian Boarding School.

“This report is part of a long-awaited process,” Washines said. “Especially when we see what has happened in Canada. We have our own horrific acts that have happened here in our families and we have been wondering when that step was going to happen.”

Washines said some kind of immediate action to accompany the process would reduce the traumatization her community faces when such heartbreaking information becomes part of the national conversation. She suggested that the government could immediately invest in programs to revitalize Indigenous languages. Or install a network of signs that use Indigenous place names.

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“Adding strategies and solutions right away shows we’re not just going to be writing reports for five or ten years but we’re actually moving forward with action,” Washines said.

The report describes how the schools used “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children,” including immediately cutting their hair upon arrival, replacing their names with English names, preventing the use of their Native languages, religions and cultural practices and making them perform military drills.

Physical abuse and the solitary confinement of children were common, including punishments like “flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing,” according to the report. Some schools forced older students to physically punish younger children, a practice school officials said “proved a most satisfactory method.”

Commissioner of Indian Affairs William A. Jones described the purpose of such methods in 1902, the report notes:

“The young of the wild bird, though born in captivity, naturally retains the instincts of freedom so strong in the parent and beats the bars to secure it, while after several generations of captivity the young bird will return to the cage after a brief period of freedom,” Jones said. “So with the Indian child. The first wild redskin placed in the school chafes at the loss of freedom and longs to return to his wildwood home. His offspring retains some of the habits acquired by the parent. These habits receive fresh development in each successive generation, fixing new rules of conduct, different aspirations, and greater desires to be in touch with the dominant race.”

The 1928 Meriam Report acknowledged that “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented.”

And the report noted that the government has located burial sites at 53 schools so far, a number that’s expected to rise as the investigation continues. Thirty-three schools have marked burial sites, and the report found six schools so far with unmarked burials. Fourteen schools have both marked and unmarked burials.

But the report didn’t identify the location of the burial sites, “in order to protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”

The report, authored by Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community of Ojibwe, recommends that the government create a federal memorial to “recognize the generations of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children that experienced the Federal Indian boarding school system.”

Newland also recommended that Congress fund a comprehensive review of records under the control of the Department of Interior. Those documents would make it possible to locate additional Federal Indian boarding schools, estimate the number of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children who attended them, and locate and count the number of marked and unmarked burial sites at the schools, among other research priorities.

Such research would allow the department to produce a second report that identifies the names, ages and tribal affiliations of children who attended the schools, locate burial sites and account for the money used by the government to run the schools that was supposed to be held in trust for tribal members.

And Newland recommended that the department identify survivors of the schools and document their experiences, preserve school sites still under federal jurisdiction and co-manage them with tribes, develop a library of records on boarding schools at the Department of Interior, facilitate the ability of tribes to rebury children and funerary objects in congruence with their cultural practices and take steps to support Native language revitalization projects.

On her husband’s side of the family, Washines, the Yakama citizen, said her husband’s great-great grandfather, a member of the Wintu People in Northern California, fought the government agents when they arrived to take their children away to boarding school.

“He fought as anybody would do, to try to prevent children from being taken from their home,” Washines said. “And because of the extent of the injuries of the officers, they imprisoned him. So they took away that family’s children and they also broke up their marriage.”

Washines said the story illustrates another immediate step the government could take to advance justice as it brings light to this traumatic history.

“I just think, ‘Why doesn’t the state of California pardon those people?” Washines said. “To criminalize people who are following their instincts to protect their children, just as anyone would, seems very misaligned with our values.”

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