Deb Haaland announced an initiative to ‘uncover the truth’ of policies that forced Indigenous children to assimilate
The US government will investigate the troubled legacy of Native American boarding schools and work to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of the institutions, which over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities.
US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has directed the department to prepare a report detailing available historical records relating to the federal boarding school programs, with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites.
“The interior department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a secretarial memo. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
Haaland announced the review on Tuesday in remarks to the National Congress of American Indians during the group’s midyear conference.
Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the US enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For more than 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.
Haaland talked about the federal government’s attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language and culture and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse.
The recent discovery of children’s remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in that legacy in Canada and the United States.
In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
After reading about the unmarked graves in Canada, Haaland recounted her own family’s story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.
“Many Americans may be alarmed to learn that the United States has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people,” she wrote. “It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.”
She continued: “I am a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home.”
Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on US boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.
Officials with the interior department said aside from trying to shed more light on the loss of life at the boarding schools, they will be working to protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.
The report from agency staff is due by 1 April.
During her address on Tuesday, Haaland told the story of her grandmother being loaded on a train with other children from her village and being shipped off to boarding school. She said many families have been haunted for too long by the “dark history” of these institutions and that the agency has a responsibility to recover that history.
“We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools,” she said.