The atrocities committed at boarding schools designed and run by the federal government to eradicate Indigenous language and culture were outlined by the U.S. Interior Department for the first time in a report published Wednesday.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held back tears as she described the scope of the investigation that identifies 408 federal Indian boarding schools across 37 states that operated between 1819 and 1969. New Mexico had 43 of these schools, the third most in the country behind Oklahoma (76) and Arizona (47).
Burial sites were found at 53 different schools, but the department won’t publicly share the locations due to concerns of “grave-robbing, vandalism and other desecration,” Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland said.
These schools used “militarized” tactics to assimilate Native American children as young as 4 years old in environments described in the report as fostering “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care.”
The report also acknowledges that the federal government used money from Indian Trust Funds to pay schools – even those run by religious organizations – to take children away without parental consent and force them into environments that were designed to destroy generational bonds by eliminating language and culture.
Those tribal trust accounts held money that was a result of territory cessions to the United States.
Haaland (Laguna) said the report is the first step in addressing the U.S. government’s role and responsibility for this era. She didn’t give any explicit support of financial reparations for tribes but didn’t shut down the possibility, either. She responded to a question about restitution by saying President Joe Biden, “fully understands the obligation of the United States to Indian tribes. He fully understands the federal trust responsibility to tribes.”
In the meantime, the next phase of the federal government response will be to take this research to the people and find ways it can assist with healing the generational trauma it caused.
“This has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people because 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 (Ojibwe) said.
Haaland announced the Interior Department will take part in a yearlong tour to listen to boarding school survivors and their families engaging in talks about the past. The department is committed to directing people to mental health and spiritual resources to help heal, she said.
Haaland discussed the importance of language preservation in an effort to recover from the boarding school era. She said her grandmother was forced to attend a boarding school at 8 years old, which led to her mother’s trauma that disconnected Haaland from her own culture. “I don’t speak my language because my mother was afraid to teach me when we were growing up.”
In April, the Interior Department suggested it could work with Indian Health Services to fund counseling services to help people with therapy on this topic. However, there is no specific financial commitment by Congress at this time to fund such an endeavor.
Haaland said Congress appropriated $7 million to fund the boarding school investigation.
Most boarding school sites were on active or decommissioned military sites. From the onset, the schools were “designed to separate a child from his reservation and family, strip him of his tribal lore and mores, force the complete abandonment of his Native language, and prepare him for never again returning to his people,” according to the Interior report.
By 1904, the federal government understood the significance of separating families, writing in official documents that, “The love of home and the warm reciprocal affection existing between parents and children are among the strongest characteristics of the Indian nature.”
In 1928 the Meriam Report looked at the condition of Native Americans in the U.S. and found that the “main disruption to the Indian family and tribal relations had come from the Federal Indian boarding school system.”
The 1928 report also concluded that boarding schools were acting as de facto children labor camps citing a disproportionate amount of time students were spending doing vocational or labor-intensive work instead of actual schoolwork like math or reading. Even the youngest of students were forced into manual labor such as lumbering, railroad, carpentering, irrigation, well-digging and construction.
The Interior Department investigation shared the itinerary of a typical school day in 1917 for a first grade student at a boarding school. It shows a required 110 minutes learning English, then 20 minutes of drawing, 10 minutes of breathing exercises that is followed by 240 minutes of “industrial work.”
An example at the Mescalero Boarding School in New Mexico shows that in 1903 Mescalero Apache “boys sawed over 70,000 feet of lumber and 40,000 shingles and made upward of 120,000 bricks.”
The federal government also circumvented rules regarding separation of church and state by paying schools run by churches to take in Native American students.
A 1908 Supreme Court ruling, Quick Bear v. Leupp, allowed the federal government to use money held in Indian treaties and trust accounts to fund children “induced or compelled to attend Indian boarding schools that were operated by religious institutions or organizations.”
The court said paying churches did not violate the Indian Appropriation Acts and “to forbid such expenditures would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”
The generational impact of boarding schools will be the next development in the historic investigation.
Research about boarding school survivors shows higher rates of chronic health problems that could be passed down to children. “The increased trauma that men faced in the Indian boarding school system may have produced increased stress, which then may affect the biological systems of the body,” according to the report. “These stressors may then introduce epigenetic alterations that are then transferred to their children, also known as epigenetic inheritance.”
“Children of the first attendees of [federal Indian] boarding schools went on to attend, as did their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, leading to an intergenerational pattern of cultural and familial disruption under direct and indirect support by the United States and non-federal entities.”
This story was originally published in Source New Mexico – sourcenm.com – which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news provider.