Haaland, Dept. of Interior, launch review of ‘troubled legacy’ of U.S. Indian boarding schools

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced this week she has ordered a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding schools, which operated for much of the 19th and 20th centuries with the primary goal of assimilating Indian children into European culture.

Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the first Native American person to hold a cabinet level position. She has directed her staff to research historical boarding school records, with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites, and publish a report, according to a Department media release.

The Twin Cities-based Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) applauded the news.

“NABS believes this investigation will provide critical resources to address the ongoing historical trauma of Indian boarding schools,” the organization said in a media release. “Our organization has been pursuing truth, justice, and healing for boarding school survivors, descendants, and tribal communities.”

The Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, circa 1900, was the archtype for boarding schools. (Photo: Wikipedia)

For those who don’t understand what historical trauma is, Native American boarding schools are a prime example. Native children were taken from their homes and communities and dropped off at schools near and far with other children they had never met.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsulvania became the prototype Indian boarding school. It was founded in 1879 by then-Capt. Richard Pratt, who coined the phrase: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

sAt boarding schools, children were shamed and punished for speaking their native language. They were shamed and punished for practicing the spiritual ways of their families and told those practices were evil. School staff cut the children’s traditionally long hair and forced them to wear western clothes. Children suffered both physical and sexual abuse.

Some children died and were buried at boarding schools. What incredible trauma for their families who never got to see their children again.

The Washington Post recently recounted the story of 12-year-old Sophia Tetoff.

In the summer of 1901, a petite 12-year-old girl was plucked from an orphanage in Alaska and shipped across the continent by boat and train. She arrived in Pennsylvania 25 days and 4,000 miles later, a world away from the windswept island in the Bering Sea where she was born, where her Aleut heritage went back generations.

So began the final chapter in the heartbreakingly short life of Sophia Tetoff, one that would end five years later at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in rural Pennsylvania.

Washington Post

Sophia was one of at least 188 children who died at the school, the story said. “The true number may never be known, historians say, given poor record keeping, sloppy burial practices and the relocation in 1927 of a cemetery so that a parking lot could be constructed.”

For those Indian children who “graduated,” they often left feeling unloved and unlovable. Significantly, they never learned their traditional ways of parenting, leaving them at a loss when they had their own children.

That kind of trauma doesn’t just go away; it gets passed down generation to generation to this day.

White Earth School Band, circa 1908 – 1916. Photo Minnesota Historical Society, posted on MNOpedia

In Canada, an estimated 6,000 children died while attending residential schools, “due in large part to the squalid health conditions inside,” the BBC reported Thursday. “Students were often housed in poorly built, poorly heated, and unsanitary facilities.”

We don’t know the total number of Indian children who died in U.S. boarding schools. The Department of Interior study will try to answer that question.

NABS has been working on it, too.

NABS has identified 367 historically assimilative Indian boarding schools that operated in the U.S. between approximately 1870 until 1970. However, NABS has only been able to locate records from 38% of the boarding schools that we know of. Because the records have never been fully examined, it is still unknown how many Native American children attended, died, or went missing from Indian boarding schools. We believe that the time is now for truth and healing. We have a right to know what happened to the children who never returned home from Indian boarding schools.

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