The first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that tried to assimilate Indigenous children into white society for more than 150 years has unveiled some shocking results. Investigators have identified more than 500 student deaths at the former sites of these institutions. Officials say that number is expected to grow.
The Interior Department's 102-page Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report released Wednesday revealed that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then-territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii.
The report explains the department's investigation has identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the school system.
The dark history of Native American boarding schools — where children were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages, and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country through generations.
Many children never returned home, and the Interior Department said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes included disease, accidental injuries, and abuse.
"Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system," said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years.
The agency is still in the process of poring through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of records, with help from many Indigenous people who have had to work through their own trauma and pain. Accounting for the number of deaths will be difficult because records weren't always kept.
The U.S. government directly ran some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant, and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies to "civilize" Native Americans. The federal government still oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states that serve Native Americans, but the schools' missions are vastly different from the past.
Investigation Ordered After Indigenous Bodies Found at School Sites in Canada
As CBN News reported in 2021, following the discoveries of unmarked graves on the sites of former boarding schools for Indigenous children last spring in Canada, Haaland ordered an investigation last June into the history of these schools in the U.S. that included a search for graves of children who may have perished at them.
To date, some 1,350 graves at the sites of the former schools have been found in Canada.
CBN News has followed this story from the beginning, including the discovery of the children's graves which sparked attacks on 45 churches in Canada with some of the buildings being burned to the ground. Domestic terrorists in Canada carried out the attacks against mainly Roman Catholic churches serving indigenous congregations.
Last month, Pope Francis apologized to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada for the "deplorable" abuses they suffered in Catholic-run boarding schools.
The pope begged for forgiveness while meeting with dozens of members of the Metis, Inuit, and First Nations communities who came to Rome seeking a papal apology and a commitment for the Catholic Church to repair the damage.
"For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord," Pope Francis said. "And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing."
Schools Taught Skills Not Relevant to the Times, Punishments Severe
The report highlighted that the boarding school system 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 U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies.
The manual labor was tedious. For example, according to the report, in 1903 at the Mescalero Boarding School, New Mexico, the Mescalero Apache "boys sawed over 70,000 feet of lumber and 40,000 shingles and made upward of 120,000 brick."
The boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including abusive corporal punishment such as solitary confinement, flogging, withholding food, whipping, slapping, and cuffing. The school system at times even made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.
Postcard showing boys and girls, wearing uniforms, posed with a teacher in front of an Indian school located at Cantonment, Oklahoma. Circa 1900 to 1910. (Image credit: Library of Congress)
Provisions for the care of the Indian children at the schools were grossly inadequate. Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented.
In February, CBN News spoke to a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who attended the Cut Bank Boarding School in northwestern Montana in the 1960s. He recalled the demeaning and abusive treatment he and others experienced.
"They shaved our heads, and they would leave patches of hair to make you look goofy and kick you out the barber chair and 'Next!' and make you run around like that," Wes Bremner shared. "And then later, they'd come and they'd call you back in, and they'd shave it off."
The Road to Healing
Haaland also announced Wednesday a yearlong tour called "The Road to Healing" for Interior Department officials that will allow former boarding school students from Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent oral history collection.
The conditions at boarding and residential schools varied across the U.S. and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, children at the schools often were subject to military-style discipline.
James LaBelle Sr., who is Inupiaq, said he attended to two federal boarding schools where he learned about European and American history and language, math and science but nothing about Indigenous cultures and traditions.
"I came out not knowing who I was," he said.
A U.S. House subcommittee on Thursday will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada.
Deborah Parker, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said it's an important step in revealing a fuller truth about what happened to Native children.
"Our children deserve to be found," she said. "Our children deserve to be brought home. We are here for their justice. And we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children."
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