Federal report finds burial sites and details abuse among Native American children at government boarding schools

Interior Department’s stunning report identifies more than 50 burial sites and details forced assimilation agenda that lasted through 1960s

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 11 May 2022 21:35
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Federal report details abuse among Native American children at government boarding schools
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Thousands of Native American children forced to attend at least 408 schools across 37 states as part of a federal government boarding school programme suffered beatings, hunger, manual labour and other forms of violence over several decades, according to a report issued by the US Department of Interior.

The 106-page report released on 11 May also identified burial sites at more than 50 of the former schools, a figure that the agency expects to grow as it continues its investigation into a programme that lasted from 1869 through the 1960s.

The investigation discovered at least 19 schools accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first-ever Indigenous cabinet secretary, said the investigation has revealed the “heartbreaking and undeniable” consequences of the federal government’s agenda, including intergenerational trauma caused by family separations and the eradication of languages and cultural practices that have echoed through families for decades.

Secretary Haaland’s grandparents, who attended such schools, were “stolen from their parents’ cultures and communities and forced to live in boarding schools,” she said on 11 May.

“Many children like them never made it back to their homes,” she said. “This is not new to us. This is not new to many of us.”

The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves in Canada last year prompted Secretary Haaland to investigate dozens of federally supported US schools operated by government programmes and churches that relied on “systematic militarised and identity-alteration methodologies” as part of a forced assimilation effort among Indigenous communities, according to a first volume of the report, assembled by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.

Forced assimilation was only part of the programme’s goals, according to the report. Its broader agenda sought the “territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children,” the report found.

The investigation found that the school system banned the use of Indigenous languages, religions and cultural practises and “focused on manual labor and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial US economy, further disrupting Tribal economies,” according to the report.

Secretary Haaland will begin a year-long “Road to Healing” tour to address survivors of the boarding school system and connect survivors and their communities to support. The tour will also begin collecting stories as part of a “permanent oral history” that chronicles the programme.

James LaBelle Sr, a boarding school survivor and current vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, was sent to a school in Alaska at eight years old.

“I learned everything about the European American culture ... but I didn’t know anything about who I was as a Native person,” he said on 11 May. “I came out not knowing who I was.”

Tulalip Tribal member Deb Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Coalition, said that “we still do not know how many children attended, how many children died, and or how many children were permanently scarred for life because of these federal institutions.”

“Our children deserve to be found. Our children deserve to be brought home,” she said. “We will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children.”

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