WASHINGTON (CN) — History is messy.
Few sagas of U.S. history are as messy as the treatment of Native Americans. While a particular chapter in that story — boarding schools — is receiving a new focus from the federal government, one advocate stressed the need for nuance.
“It’s very difficult to generalize about anything in Indian Country,” said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor at Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education and a descendant of the Creek Nation.
Over a year after the Department of the Interior released the first volume of its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, its second report will be made public later this year. The initiative is a partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a comprehensive history of the program and its legacy.
Officials recently announced $4 million to fund oral histories and digitize records related to the program, which sought forced assimilation of Native people.
In an interview this week, Lomawaima struggled to break down the experience of Native children in the schools into one category. She said it requires incredible nuance because many children were abused, suffered or died in the schools, but others feel the institutions were one of the best things to happen to them.
“Does that excuse the reason why these schools were set up? Absolutely not,” Lomawaima said. “These schools were established to erase people.”
Congress formalized the U.S. program of forced assimilation when it passed a law in 1819 to give funding to religious organizations that would set up boarding schools for native children, explained Michael Kennedy, a professor of history at High Point University.
“The idea was to control all aspects of Native American lives and ‘break’ them of their ‘savage’ traditions,” Kennedy wrote in an email. “This included imposed Christianity, boarding schools for children … and making many aspects of traditional Native American life illegal.”
Lomawaima, whose father was enrolled in one of the schools in Oklahoma, said the program was an aspect of the federal government’s “erase and replace” policy of genocide toward Indigenous people and their culture.
Students would receive a half day of “minimal academics,” followed by a half day of manual labor to maintain the schools, Lomawaima said. Disease and malnutrition was rampant, Native language was strictly prohibited, and staff used harsh punishment.
“That whole civilizing idea was assumed to be the exact same thing as Christianizing,” Lomawaima said. “It’s important to note the federal schools that were established were religious schools. You had to go to church.”
By the 1850s, the federal government took over management of the schools. The institutions began to close after World War II through shifting federal policy about tribal sovereignty, although some remain operating to the present day. The federal Bureau of Indian Education operates 56 elementary and secondary schools and funds 128 controlled by tribes.
In recent years, after the discoveries of unmarked and mass graves at similar institutions in Canada, the spotlight grew on the boarding schools in North America. Early in the Biden administration, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Cabinet member of Native American descent, ordered an investigation of the U.S. boarding school program.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know. Deeply ingrained in so many of us is the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted,” Haaland said in a press release. “This is one step, among many, that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian boarding school policies set out to break.”
Shelly Lowe, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a descendent of the Navajo, spoke this week about the latest installment of the Interior Department's work.
“The first step toward addressing the intergenerational consequences of these schools is to squarely acknowledge and examine the history of a federal system intended to separate families, erase Native languages and cultures, and dispossess Native peoples of their land,” Lowe said in a statement.
Lomawaima said the U.S. needs to fully reckon with the legacy of the schools while not painting a broad brush of all Native people as victims. The experience of those who suffered and those who succeeded should not be brushed over to create a tidy narrative.
Looking forward, she said, “It remains to be seen what federal acknowledgement of harm might actually come out of this.”Follow @TheNolanStout
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.