Wrestling With The Shrouded Legacy Of America’s Boarding Schools For Indigenous Children

June 29, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Last week on June 22, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative,” at a conference of the National Congress of American Indians, the country’s largest coalition of Indigenous Peoples. The Initiative will undertake a “comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

The Department of Interior (DOI) will now, under the supervision of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, conduct a thorough analysis of the records it kept between 1819 and 1969 relating to the residential school system, focusing, in particular, on cemeteries and potential burial sites.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post dated June 11, Secretary Haaland said that the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves belonging to Indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools in Canada, and her own history with the system, had prompted her to examine more closely America’s entanglement with Indian boarding schools, the extent of which might still be unknown to most non-Indigenous people.

Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary and is herself a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, in addition to being a 35th generation New Mexican. She has her own history with the residential school system, with her maternal grandparents having been removed from their homes and sent to such schools between the ages of 8 and 13.

In a memo, Secretary Haaland said that the aim of the new initiative is to “shed light” on the “unspoken traumas” and “inter-generational impact” of the policies. She acknowledged that the process would be “long and difficult,” as well as “painful,” but acknowledging the past is necessary in helping Native Americans receive some closure so that they can heal and move forward.

The DOI has been historically tasked with monitoring and looking after the country’s Indigenous population. The DOI is responsible for honoring the federal government’s treaties with the 574 federally recognized Indian tribes and Native Alaskan villages. Secretary Haaland said that as the primary force behind the management of these schools, the DOI is “uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the histories of these institutions.” 

“Kill The Indian, Save The Man”

The roots of the Indian boarding school system lie in the belief that early European settlers had regarding the cultures and practices of Indigenous Peoples. As America began expanding westward and encountering more tribes, the federal government began to note what it called the “Indian problem.”

The aim of the residential school system was to assimilate Indigenous children into white, Christian society, and dissuade them from practicing their traditions, languages, rituals, and cultures, which were seen as “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” Buoyed by the encouragement of churches, the federal government decided to use education to deal with the “Indian problem,” removing children from their cultures and communities entirely. Separated children were then relocated to residential facilities where “their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”

In 1819, Congress implemented the Civilization Funds Act, to prevent “the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes” and to “[introduce] among them the habits and arts of civilization,” by “persons of good moral character.” In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was established in the War Department to oversee the distribution of the resources in the Civilization Fund.

The first boarding school established in the U.S. was a vocational one around 1859 on the Yakima Indian Reservation, in the state of Washington. By 1900, the BIA was in charge of the education of all Indigenous children. They ran day and boarding schools on reservation land, but also oversaw residential institutions off reservations. The schools were largely government-funded and church-run for most of their history.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has identified around 367 boarding schools for Indians across 30 states (mostly in the West) that existed between 1870 and 1970, though that number is not concrete. NABS has only been able to find records for 38% of those 367 schools.

Over the 150-plus-year lifespan of the system, the DOI says that hundreds of thousands of children were taken from their families, though the exact numbers remain unclear. According to some estimates, by 1900, there were around 20,000 Indigenous children in boarding schools. A quarter of a century later, that number had virtually tripled, to around 60,000, with around roughly 83% of Indian school-age children attending boarding schools by 1926. Some studies have shown that around 25%–35% of all Native children were removed from their families and communities, a large number of whom even had living, able, and willing relatives to take them in.

Under the system, parents were not allowed to visit their children at these schools, Secretary Haaland details in her memo. Many students have reported suffering prolonged abuse and injury, and countless more were buried in unmarked graves when they died. Sometimes families were not even informed of a child’s passing and did not receive their remains. They were left without answers or closure, as they did not know their child’s final resting place, nor could they perform the rituals necessary in their belief system to bring closure and peace to the deceased.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 was implemented as a response to trauma of the family separation policy to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families” (25 U.S.C. § 1902). It governs and mandates how courts must act in cases that involve the custody status of Indigenous children.

The long-term effects of this system are readily apparent. Secretary Haaland highlighted that many of the former students of these schools carried the memories and trauma they suffered to their homes when they returned, in turn influencing subsequent generations. In addition, there had also been a substantial loss of languages and valuable cultural resources and practices.

Today, there are still at least 73 Native American schools active, with 15 of those being residential. They are run by the Bureau of Indian Education and are aimed at providing quality education, empowering youth to help their communities, and enabling the next generation to preserve and carry on their spirituality, languages, and cultures.

The DOI’s Plans

The aforementioned discoveries in Canada and Secretary Haaland’s announcement have reignited the debate on how America should handle its past relations with and policies towards Indigenous Peoples.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative as outlined by the DOI has three main steps with the broader aim of investigating the long-term impact of the schools, exactly how many children died, and, if possible, under what circumstances they died and were buried.

The first step will be to identify and collect records and information related to DOI’s role in the boarding school program from 1919 to 1969. The program will also be tasked with identifying sites where Indigenous students might have been buried by authorities.

DOI officials will work with consultants, stakeholders, and experts to determine the tribal affiliations of any remains found, so that the children can be laid to rest in a manner consistent with their ancestral heritage. These groups will also be consulted on how to best use the information found, how to protect and preserve the burial sites, and how to best respect the deceased, their families, and the community at large.

The final step will be the submission of a report to Secretary Haaland detailing the findings by April 1, 2022.

NABS came out in support of the DOI’s initiative, calling it “the first major federal investigation into the U.S. government’s Indian boarding school policy.” However, it also renewed calls for Congress to establish a federal “Truth and Healing Commission” to fully investigate the practices and consequences of residential boarding schools.

“The legacy of Indian boarding schools remains, manifesting itself in Indigenous communities through intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and other undocumented bodily and mental impacts,” Secretary Haaland said. “Many who survived the ordeal returned home changed in unimaginable ways, and their experiences still resonate across the generations. The work outlined above will shed light on the scope of that impact.”