Study sheds light on dark history of American residential schools

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

A US federal study, the first of its kind, of Native American boarding schools that for more than a century sought to assimilate Native children into white society, identified more than 400 such schools supported by the US government and more than 50 associated burial sites. – a figure that could grow exponentially as research continues.

The report released Wednesday by the US Department of the Interior increases the number of schools known to have operated for 150 years, beginning in the early 19th century and coinciding with the withdrawal of many tribes from their ancestral lands.

The dark history of boarding schools — where children were taken from their families, forbidden to speak their Native American languages, and often abused — has been deeply felt by generations of families.

Many children never returned home. The investigation has so far revealed more than 500 deaths at 19 schools, although the Home Office has said the number could be in the thousands or even tens of thousands.

“Many of these children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites, far from their Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages, the native Hawaiian community and their families, often by the hundreds or even thousands. thousands of kilometres,” the report said.

A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in schools and the impacts of boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said.

Study launched last year

“The consequences of federal residential school policies – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as four years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said the US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a statement.

Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the federal government’s role in them. The 408 schools identified by his agency operated in 37 states or territories, including many in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.

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Chief Archibald calls for an investigation into Canada’s role in the residential school system

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald explains what she wants from a United Nations inquiry into Canada’s role in the residential school system. 0:41

The Home Office acknowledged that the number of schools identified could change as more data is collected. The coronavirus pandemic and budget cuts have hampered some of the research over the past year, said Bryan Newland, the Home Office’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

The department has so far found at least 53 burial sites in or near US boarding schools, both marked and unmarked.

The US government directly operated some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant, and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies aimed at “civilizing” Native Americans.

The Interior Department’s report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.

Listen to stories of survivors

Haaland also announced a year-long tour for Department of the Interior officials on Wednesday that will allow former residents of Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent collection of oral history.

“My priority is not only to give voice to survivors and descendants of federal residential school policies, but also to address the lasting legacy of these policies so that Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” said she declared.

Boarding school conditions varied across the United States and Canada. School children were often subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut. Early programs focused heavily on outdated job skills, including housework for girls.

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Records were not always kept

Tribal leaders have urged the agency to ensure that the children’s remains are properly taken care of and returned to their tribes, if desired. The locations of burial sites will not be made public to prevent them from being disturbed, Newland said.

It was difficult to know the whereabouts of the deceased children because records were not always kept. Ground penetrating radar was used at some locations to search for remains.

The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which created an initial inventory of schools, said the Interior’s work would be an important step for the United States in addressing its role in schools, but noted that the authority of the agency was limited.

Later this week, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after a commission in Canada. Several religious groups support the legislation.

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.