Editorial: Indian boarding school history needs telling for healing

History can indeed be painful. And piecing it together can be difficult. But knowing it is imperative to moving forward. And not repeating terrible mistakes.

For nearly 100 years ending in the 1960s, U.S. government, religious and other groups attempted to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society by removing them from their homes and shipping them off to boarding schools. The purpose given at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”

Alvino Sandoval, a Navajo from Tohajiilee, told Mary Bowannie of News From Indian Country a couple of years ago that when he was 10 years old his mom woke him up one day and told him he was going somewhere with food to eat and a warm place to sleep. He said she never mentioned anything about getting an education.

“I never went off the reservation, and all of a sudden they shipped me out and I ended up here,” said Sandoval, a 1958 graduate of Albuquerque Indian School. Sandoval was one of the lucky ones, not so traumatized by his experience that he could not speak of it later in life.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has identified nearly 370 boarding schools for Indigenous youths operating in the United States between 1869 and the 1960s. Hundreds of thousands of Native American children passed through them, and reports of physical and sexual abuse were widespread. Some children never made it home.

“The truth about the U.S. Indian boarding school policy has largely been written out of the history books,” the coalition says.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, is to be commended for launching the nation’s first comprehensive investigation into Indigenous boarding schools. She tells of her grandparents being packed off to them as children.

A member of Laguna Pueblo, Haaland acknowledges it will be a painful and difficult process. It’s also a necessary one needed to establish an accurate historical record and a clear understanding of what occurred and why.

And it’s hardly an esoteric exercise in New Mexico.

In addition to Albuquerque Indian School, which was opened in 1881, the U.S. government established the Santa Fe Indian School in 1890. Its stated purpose was to educate Native American children from throughout the Southwest. But its website says it was in reality part of the federal government’s push to assimilate Native Americans. Like other Indigenous boarding schools, the school forbade Native American children from using their own names, languages and clothing. Tribal religious practices were also forbidden.

And there was the Ramona Industrial School for Indian Girls. It opened not far from Santa Fe’s historic plaza in the mid-1880s. It housed mostly Apache students, many of whom had parents who were being held prisoner by the U.S. Army at Fort Union.

Haaland says the aim is to locate boarding schools across the country and their burial sites and identify the names and tribal affiliations of children who were sent to them. The project will try to determine how many children perished while attending those schools and were buried there in unmarked graves.

Disinterred remains of nine Native American children who died more than a century ago while attending a government-run school in Pennsylvania were handed over to relatives during a ceremony last week so they could be returned to Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota. We should expect more remains of Native American children to be disinterred and returned to tribes as more boarding schools and burial sites become known.

It won’t be pleasant. But it should be done in a respectful and peaceful manner.

The wounds of the boarding schools are still open in Indian Country. An accurate historical record needs to be created. Once the magnitude of what occurred is known – including neglect, abuse and worse – the nation can begin working toward true healing.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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