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The U.S. is reckoning with its troubled past of Indian boarding schools

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs/Screenshot by NPR
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

When the U.S. federal government began its Indian Boarding School Initiative in the mid-19th century, the goal was clear: to erase Indigenous cultures through a process of forced assimilation.

Now, the head of the Department of the Interior hopes to address the generations-long fallout from those policies.

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland advocated for a Truth and Healing Commission to examine past U.S. government efforts to eradicate the languages, identities and cultural practices of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Her comments came as she updated the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on her department's ongoing investigation into federal boarding schools, which released its first report last month.

Haaland told the committee the story behind the federal boarding schools is "a part of America's story we must tell."

"While we cannot change that history, I believe that our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth of what took place and a focus on healing the wounds of the past," she said.

The U.S. government operated hundreds of Indian boarding schools

Between 1819 and 1969, the federal government operated more than 400 boarding schools across the country and provided support for more than 1,000 others, according to the department's investigation. It also counted 53 schools with marked and unmarked burial sites of children, a number it says will likely increase as the investigation continues.

Haaland was speaking in support of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, which could allow Congress to issue subpoenas to non-federal entities to obtain more detailed information about the locations of the burial sites. It would also help trace the identities of the children back to their families, work with tribal leaders to arrange repatriation in a culturally-appropriate manner, and end removal of Indigenous children from their families by state adoption, social service, and foster care agencies.

Haaland introduced the legislation in the U.S. House in 2020, before her appointment to the Cabinet. A Senate version is now being sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Haaland told the committee she hoped it could work alongside existing efforts by the Interior Department to help Native American communities heal from the impacts of the policies.

She also requested $7 million in additional congressional funding– the same amount as last year– to continue the Interior Department's work documenting and cataloging grave sites, as well as to create a "road to healing" that will work directly with tribal communities to document stories and assess their needs. She emphasized the need for the federal government to act in a holistic way.

"I believe that our obligations to Native communities mean that federal policies should fully support and revitalize Native health care, education, Native languages, and cultural practices that prior federal Indian policies, like those supporting Indian boarding schools, sought to destroy," she said.

Haaland says she is a product of these policies

In her remarks, Haaland, who is a member of Laguna Pueblo, said her position as the first Native American cabinet secretary places her in a "unique position" to address the impacts of the U.S. government's policies towards Native children.

"Like all Native people, I am a product of these horrific assimilation-era policies, as my grandparents were removed from their families to federal Indian boarding schools when they were only eight years old and forced to live away from their parents, culture, and Pueblos until they were 13 years old," she said.

A group of other leaders from around the country, who also testified in support of the bill, described the impacts of the boarding school policies on their people, which they said have included physical, mental, and emotional traumas over the course of generations. Several described their own work to document those today.

Sandra White Hawk is president of the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which has been working to survey boarding school survivors and their descendants, and has found high rates of depression, PTSD, and suicide attempts among respondents. She said the truth and healing commission could provide an opportunity to allow people's stories to be heard by a wider audience.

"It's one thing to share your stories within your home, or in your community," she said, "but it's another place to share it, where it's going to be validated with the outside entities that brought this on."

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who is the committee's chairperson, said the boarding school era was a "dark period" in U.S. history and a "painful example" of how U.S. policy has failed Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawai'ians.

"We must do all we can to right this wrong," he said.

Committee vice chairperson Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pointed to the conditions at the boarding schools, where the Interior Department report noted children were subjected to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse as well as malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and forced labor.

"And we know it just scratches the surface of what actually happened," Murkowski said.

A pathway for stories from the elders who experienced the schools

La Quen Náay Liz Medicine Crow, president of the Anchorage-based First Alaskans Institute, called the government policies "intentional and purposeful". And, she said, tribal elders are some of the only ones who will be able to tell the complete story about what really happened there. She described hearing her grandmother asked to recount experiences in boarding schools.

"And my grandmother responded, 'I can tell you what happened physically, but I'm still not able to tell you what happened inside,'" Medicine Crow said, gesturing to her heart.

"This commission will open up a pathway where these stories, from people – who are now elders – will be heard," she said. "Time is of the essence. We cannot waste any more of their precious life [by] not giving them a forum to share their lived experiences."

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