FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools, which for more than a century sought to assimilate Native children into white society, has identified more than 400 such schools supported by the US government. and over 50 associated burial sites, a figure that could grow exponentially as research continues.
The report released by the Home Office on Wednesday increases the number of schools known to have operated for 150 years, starting in the early 19th century and coinciding with the withdrawal of many tribes from their ancestral lands.
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The dark history of boarding schools — where children who were taken from their families were not allowed to speak their Native American languages and were often abused — has been deeply felt across Indian Country and across generations.
Many children never returned home. The investigation has so far revealed more than 500 deaths at 19 schools, although the Home Office has said the number could be in the thousands or even tens of thousands.
“Many of these children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites, far from their Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages, native Hawaiian community and families, often in the hundreds or even thousands miles,” the report said.
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in schools and the impacts of boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said.
“The consequences of federal policies on Indian boarding schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement.
Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the government’s role in them. The 408 schools identified by his agency operated in 37 states or territories, including many in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Home Office acknowledged that the number of schools identified could change as more data is collected. The coronavirus pandemic and budget cuts have hampered some of the research over the past year, said Bryan Newland, the Home Office’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
The department has so far found at least 53 burial sites in or near US boarding schools, both marked and unmarked.
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The US government directly operated some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant, and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies aimed at “civilizing” Native Americans.
The Interior Department’s report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.
Haaland also announced a year-long tour for Department of the Interior officials on Wednesday that will allow former residents of Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent collection of oral history.
“My priority is not only to give voice to survivors and descendants of federal residential school policies, but also to address the lasting legacy of these policies so that Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” said she declared.
Boarding school conditions varied across the United States and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, school children were often subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut.
Early programs had a strong focus on outdated job skills, including household chores for girls.
Tribal leaders have urged the agency to ensure that the remains of children found are properly taken care of and returned to their tribes, if desired. The locations of burial sites will not be made public to prevent them from being disturbed, Newland said.
It was difficult to know the whereabouts of the deceased children because records were not always kept. Ground penetrating radar was used at some locations to search for remains.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which created an initial inventory of schools, said the Interior’s work would be an important step for the United States in addressing its role in schools, but said noted that the authority of the agency was limited.
Later this week, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after a commission in Canada. Several religious groups support the legislation.