Jun 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Interior to investigate "lasting consequences" of Indian boarding schools

Photo of Deb Haaland with a hand raised to her cheek
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Interior will launch an investigation into Indian boarding schools, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced on Tuesday.

Why it matters: In May, the remains of 215 Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation children were found buried at the site at a former residential school in Canada. The discovery has renewed attention on the Americas' history of genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Our thought bubble, via Axios’ Russell Contreras: Indigenous communities have long spoken out against the intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools that robbed tribal children of their identity while abusing them.

What she's saying: "In no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects," Haaland said in a speech to the National Congress of American Indians, saying the agency would "uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools."

  • The investigation, which will be called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, will identify past boarding school sites, the locations of known and possible burial sites near the schools, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children taken there.
  • "I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know this process will be painful. It won't undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we are all proud to embrace," one that isn't "rooted in the worst parts of our past."

Background: In the early 19th and mid-20th centuries, Christian missionaries and the U.S. government established boarding schools for Native American children in order to eradicate Native cultures.

  • The children were forcibly separated from their families, stripped of their cultures and punished for speaking their own languages as part of their forced assimilation into white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, according to the National Museum of the American Indian.
    • The experiences led to low self-esteem, alcoholism and high suicide rates among Native communities, even long after the schools closed.
  • Investigations would later reveal documented cases of sexual, manual, physical and mental abuse, many of which killed Native children, per Amnesty International.
  • Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary, wrote about her family's experience at the schools in the Washington Post.
  • "My great-grandfather was taken to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Its founder coined the phrase 'kill the Indian, and save the man,' which genuinely reflects the influences that framed these policies at the time," she wrote.

Worth noting: The remains of 10 Indigenous children who died more than 100 years ago while attending Carlisle Indian School are scheduled to be returned home to their communities in Alaska and South Dakota, the Department of the Army recently announced.

Go deeper