The U.S. Department of Interior this month released its first report documenting the historical and ongoing trauma the boarding school system inflicted on Indian children, their families, and their communities. It’s a first step in national efforts towards truth telling, education, and repair with Indigenous communities.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report:
- Confirms the United States created the boarding school system to force cultural assimilation and dispossession Indigenous peoples of their lands.
- Identifies 408 boarding schools across 37 states that the U.S. government operated or supported. Roughly half of them “may have received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization.”
- Identifies at least 53 burial sites for children who lived in boarding schools — with more discoveries expected. Approximately 19 boarding schools accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children. That number is expected to rise.
- Identifies more than 1,000 other Federal and non-Federal institutions, “including Indian day schools, sanitariums, asylums, orphanages, and stand-alone dormitories that may have involved education of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people, mainly Indian children.”
Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior (and the first Native American to hold that post) initiated the report last summer.
The report ends with eight recommendations, starting with the need to continue the investigation. It identifies areas for further research, everything from detailing the health and mortality of Indian children who experienced the boarding school system, to identifying “religious institutions and organizations that have ever received Federal funding” to support boarding school system.
The other recommendations are:
2. Create a voluntary system to identify surviving adult boarding school attendees
3. Document Indian boarding school attendees’ experiences
4. Support protection, preservation, reclamation, and co-management of Indian boarding school sites under U.S. government jurisdiction
5. Develop a centralized Federal records repository for the Indian boarding school system
6. Identify and engage other Federal agencies to support this work
7. Support non-Federal entities that may independently release records under their control
8. Support additional Congressional action, such as:
- Supporting Freedom of Information Act exemptions to protect sensitive, specific information on burial locations across the Federal Indian boarding school system
- Creating a federal memorial to the Indigenous children who experienced boarding schools
- Advancing Native language revitalization
Boarding school abuses were wide ranging
Boarding schools stressed Indigenous children by being disconnected from their family, their community, and everything they had known up to that point in their lives.
Boarding schools failed to meet the bare minimum obligation of preparing Indian children for work, the report said.
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.”
Students would study half time, then work the other half day for the institution. In some cases, that meant work that generated revenue for the boarding school.
Examples of child labor included livestock and poultry raising, dairying, lumbering, working on the railroad, carpentering, blacksmithing, and well-digging.
A 1928 federal boarding school report concluded “The labor of [Indian] children as carried on in Indian boarding schools would, it is believed, constitute a violation of child labor laws in most states.”
Worse than that, boarding school rules “were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.”
The Department of Interior previously has said, “frankly and unequivocally” that boarding school conditions were grossly inadequate. A 1969 federal report wrote that “Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented.”
Boarding school abuses have impacts over multiple generations.
As the Federal Indian boarding school system operated for over a century and a half, the Department identifies the watershed Running Bear studies, quantitative research based on now-adult Federal Indian boarding school attendees’ medical status, that indicate the Indian boarding school system continues to impact the present-day health of Indians who participated in the studies. These results verify the need for a comprehensive examination and report by an independent research group to assess the current impacts that Indian boarding schools have had on American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, including health, education, and economic status. A comprehensive analysis of the Federal Indian boarding school system will inform future Federal Indian law and policy changes in health care, education, and economic development.Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report
We are now in a wait-and-see mode to see if anything tangible emerges from this important work.
Here’s Indian Country Today’s take on the report.