(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.