Unidentified Native American girls at the Phoenix Indian School in June 1900 pray beside their beds. Photo via National Archives
For the first time in history, the Department of Interior investigated the federal Indian boarding school system across the United States, identifying more than 400 schools and over 50 burial sites.
Arizona was home to 47 of those schools, which were attended by Indigenous children who were taken away from their families and attempted to assimilate them through education — and, often, physical punishment.
The legacy of the federal Indian boarding school system is not new to Indigenous people. For centuries, Indigenous people across the county have experienced the loss of their culture, traditions, language and land.
Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said nowhere is that clearer than in the legacy of federal Indian boarding schools. Many of the Indigenous children who were taken to boarding school never made it back home, she said, and each of those children is a missing family member and a source of “intergenerational trauma.”
“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the federal boarding schools, carried out by the department that I now lead,” Haaland said.
The department released a report on Wednesday that found from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. The investigation identified marked and unmarked burial sites at 53 different schools.
This investigation is a result of Haaland’s June 2021 secretarial memo which directed the Department of Interior to prepare a report detailing the historical records relating to federal Indian boarding schools as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said. “We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face.”
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The goals of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative include: Identifying boarding school facilities and sites; identifying the names and tribal identities of Indigenous children who were placed in boarding schools; identifying locations of marked and unmarked burial sites of remains of Indigenous children; and incorporating tribal and individual viewpoints, including those of descendants, on the experiences in, and impacts of, the Indian boarding school system.
“This report presents the opportunity for us to reorient federal policies to support the revitalization of tribal languages and cultural practices to counteract nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at their destruction,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.
Newland and his team led the investigation. He said the investigation has been an exhausting and emotional effort for the team because they had to confront this horror daily to bring this information to the public.
“This has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people,” he said. “There is not a single American Indian, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian in this country whose life hasn’t been affected by the schools.”
Newland said many of the Indigenous kids that entered the boarding school often died far from their homes and families.
After generations, we still do not know how many children attended, how many children died, or how many children were permanently scarred for life because of these federal institutions.
– Deborah Parker, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition
The investigation identified 53 burial sites, and the department will not make the location of the site’s public due to the “very real threat” of grave robbing, vandalism, and desecration, Newland said.
“As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase,” the report states.
Arizona had the second-highest number of boarding schools at 47. Oklahoma had the most, with 76, while New Mexico’s 43 were third-most.
The investigation reported that 50% of federal Indian boarding schools may have received support from a religious institution or organization, including funding, infrastructure and personnel.
The report indicated that the earliest boarding school to open was in 1807, and the latest was in 1969. Each boarding school identified varied, according to the department, but there were several common systematic features found during the investigation.
For a school to qualify as a federal Indian boarding school in the report, the institution had to meet four criteria: It must have provided on-site housing or overnight lodging, provided formal academic or vocational training and instruction, received federal funding or other support, and been in operation before 1969.
“The scope of our charge here is to better understand the federal government’s involvement in establishing this policy, operating this policy, and carrying out this policy through the schools,” Newland said. “There is a lot more work that needs to be done to simply tell the truth.”
“This report lays the groundwork for the continued research of the department into the intergenerational trauma of federal Indian boarding schools,” Haaland said.
The investigation found that the boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children through education.
The methods of assimilation included renaming Indigenous children from their traditional names to English names; cutting the hair of Indigenous children; discouraging or preventing the use of their traditional Indigenous languages, religions, and cultural practices; and organizing Indigenous children into units to perform military drills.
The schools mostly used manual labor as part of the school curricula for Indigenous children, some of the labor included brick-making, cooking, agriculture production, livestock raising and working on the railroad.
Rules within the boarding schools were often enforced through punishment, according to the report. This included corporal punishment such as solitary confinement, flogging, withholding food, whipping, slapping and cuffing.
“The Federal Indian boarding school system at times makes older Indian children punish younger Indian children,” the report states.
The report was developed in partnership with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the ongoing trauma created by the U.S. Indian Boarding School policy.
“This is a historic moment as it reaffirms the stories, we all grew up with, the truth of our people, and the often-immense torture our elders and ancestors went through as children at the hands of the federal government and the religious institutions,” said Deborah Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
“The impact of boarding schools is still with us today,” she added.
Indigenous children during the boarding school era all had names, families, languages, regalia, traditions and prayers before boarding schools violently took them away, Parker said.
“After generations, we still do not know how many children attended, how many children died, or how many children were permanently scarred for life because of these federal institutions,” she said.
“Our children deserve to be found. Our children deserve to be brought home,” Parker said. “We are here for their justice and we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children.”
As part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and in response to recommendations from the report, Haaland announced the launch of “The Road to Healing” tour.
Haaland will conduct a year-long tour and will travel across the country to allow survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system the opportunity to share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support, and facilitate the collection of a permanent oral history.
“The Department’s work thus far shows that an all-of-government approach is necessary to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian boarding school policies set out to break,” she said.
It will be up to survivors if they want to engage with the department.
“I want to embrace people and I want to do it with love in my heart so that people know and understand that we are there for them,” Haaland said. “We’ll just see who would like to come forward and know that their voices will be heard and respected.”
No date was given for the start of the tour.
“It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” Haaland said
“I am here because my ancestors persevered,” she said. “The work we will do with the federal Indian boarding schools will have a transformational impact on the generations to follow.”
The report released by the Department is Volume 1, and it includes recommendations from Newland on the next steps in the initiative. This includes producing a list of marked and unmarked burial sites at federal Indian boarding schools as well as the total amount of federal funding used to support the boarding school system.
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