May 20, 2022 - Podcasts

Reckoning with the forced assimilation of Native American children

The Department of the Interior released a report showing that between 1819 and 1969, hundreds of Native American children died while in the federal Indian boarding school system. The probe takes a deep look at the systemic way in which the US government forced indigenous families to assimilate, often through widespread abuse.

  • Plus, even as COVID cases rise, many Americans say the pandemic is over.
  • And, billions in new aid for Ukraine.

Guests: Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday, May 20th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following today: as COVID cases rise, many Americans still say the pandemic is over. Plus, billions in new aid for Ukraine.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: reckoning with the forced assimilation of Native American children.

After almost a year of investigating federal Indian boarding schools in the US, the Department of the Interior released its first report last week showing that between 1819 and 1969, hundreds of Native American children died while in the boarding school system. The probe looked at the systemic way in which the US government forced indigenous families to assimilate, often through widespread abuse.

To go deeper into the report and share what comes next we're joined by assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the department of the interior, Bryan Newland, who led this investigation. Thank you for joining us on Axios Today.


NIALA: This is part of US history that goes back for decades for more than a century. What's the goal for an investigation of this scope?

ASST. SECRETARY NEWLAND: Well the important thing that people need to know about this is that this report and the reason that we're doing it is not some just gratuitous look back at a painful chapter in history that we are living with the effects of these boarding schools today in many tribal communities. And so what we're trying to do is paint the picture of why these boarding schools existed, how broad the program was and their impacts on Indian people. And allow that then to point us in the direction forward.

NIALA: So let's start with some of this history with the aim as you said of understanding the present. The report lays out in detail how the US government saw these schools as a method of forced assimilation. What did you learn from this investigation about how these schools disrupted Native-American families and culture?

ASST. SECRETARY NEWLAND: The most enlightening thing to come out of the report I believe is why the United States pursued this policy of forced assimilation and why in particular it targeted kids for this policy. This was part of an overall policy goal of acquiring lands from Indian people. And the cheapest way to do that both in terms of money and lives that in the mind of the federal government was to assimilate Indian people so that we would no longer have a need for all of the lands that uh Indian people own and it would make it easier to acquire without going to war. And then the federal government quickly learned that it is far easier to assimilate kids than it is adults.

NIALA: The report contained a lot of photographs of students and daily life in these schools. Why was it important to include this visual evidence?

ASST. SECRETARY NEWLAND: I think it drives home the human impact of this policy. When my daughter looked at the report and I talked to her about it you know she was moved she's 15 years old. She looked at me and said “they're just kids dad.” And was certainly powerful for me and and and I suspect it is for other because it paints the picture of who the targets were for these policies and they're just kids. These are people's family. You think about leaders of of the federal government uh from the president on to cabinet officials and and agency officials. When you juxtapose that the power on one side and the fact that you've got kids on the other it's very and there's very little I could say in response to my daughter except just kind of nod my head. And so there's a sense of sadness for the kids who didn't make it home and also a sense of opportunity that this can be turned into something that makes a positive difference going forward.

NIALA: We started this conversation with you saying that we have to understand the effects that continue today. How do we still see these effects today?

ASST. SECRETARY NEWLAND: Well I think there's obviously a lot of social impacts in tribal communities that are I believe well-documented. Poverty all the things that go along with poverty. But culturally as well. And we saw this through the pandemic where tribes were working overtime to protect elders who spoke their language because there are so few language speakers left. They were very vulnerable to COVID which is also means the whole tribe is vulnerable to losing their language entirely. That's a direct out of these boarding schools. And that means your religious practices uh in your very identity really as Indian people. That's one of the untold impacts of these boarding schools is that the loss of language, the loss of cultural practices, the loss of siblings and parents, the intergenerational traumas and abuses that we've seen all affect people today. It goes to the heart of the internal tribal connections that Indian people have with one another.

NIALA: You said that you hope that this will lead to positive change. I know alongside this report Secretary Haaland is also going to be going on a tour of the country to meet with survivors. What is the Department of Interior’s role in helping these families?

ASST. SECRETARY NEWLAND: First there's the basic need for truth telling and healing. And there are survivors and families who who want and need to share their experiences. The healing process has to begin with that. In addition there's work that we want to do to build back up tribal languages. To support the tribes that are trying to revitalize their languages and their cultural practices and their connections to their homelands and to one another. And really that's a that's a piece of that responsibility that hasn't really been carried out with any consistency over the years. And so building back up what was torn down by these boarding schools is another way that we can help Indian country.

NIALA: Bryan Newland is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

BRYAN: Meegwetch, thank you so much.

NIALA: In a moment, we’re back with three more stories you need to know as you head into your weekend.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

A few other stories we’re watching on this Friday:

Covid is on the rise in almost every state in the US, with Maine being the only state to see a slight tick down. The CDC director is urging people to consider masking indoors. But a new Axios/Ipsos poll says one in three Americans say the pandemic is over.

A grand jury yesterday indicted the 18-year-old Buffalo shooting suspect on a first degree murder charge. Axios reports that the FBI is investigating the shooting as a hate crime and a case of racially motivated violent extremism. The suspect is being held without bail.

And Congress yesterday approved a 40 billion dollar aid package for Ukraine, to provide economic, military and humanitarian support. That brings the total US investment in the war to around 54 billion dollars since the war began. We’ll have some incredible new reporting and interviews about the war for you next week, so stay tuned.

To end on a happy note: thanks to all of you who sent in photos of your lawns that you are not mowing this month, for No Mow May – including a few from overseas! I’ve put a thread of just a few of them on Twitter – you can find me AT Niala Boodhoo.

And that’s all for us –

Axios Today this week was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura, who composed the music for the podcast Suave that just won a Pulitzer Prize! Congrats, Alex! Alexandra Botti is our Supervising Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ Editor In Chief. And special thanks as always to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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