Interior Department To Investigate Racist Atrocity Many Americans Have Never Heard Of
In late June, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American appointed to a president's Cabinet, announced her department would review the history of America's Native American boarding schools. The project is meant to "uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences" of America's 150-year-long effort at forced assimilation of Native children into the norms of the dominant white culture. Or, as the founder of one school notoriously put the schools' mission, to "kill the Indian and save the man."
As part of the review, school sites, and old records from the schools, will be examined for evidence of lost grave sites of children who died after being taken from their parents and tribes.
When she announced the project at the annual mid-year conference of the National Congress of American Indians on June 22, Haaland said the department would
address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be. I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won't undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we're all proud to embrace.
The project was prompted in part by discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at Catholic Church-run residential schools that were part of Canada's efforts to wipe out indigenous culture. Shortly after the first of those sites was revealed in British Columbia, Haaland wrote an op-ed at the Washington Post reflecting on her own family's experience with America's "horrific assimilation policies."
My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like themnever made it back home.
As a matter of fact, her great-grandfather was taken to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which was founded by the very US cavalry officer who coined that awful "kill the Indian" slogan.
In her announcement, Haaland noted the irony that she now leads the department which ran many of the schools, and pointed out that even now, the full records of the boarding school policy have yet to be "compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects."
Seems like it's long past time for the US government to account for the damage done by a policy that began with the "Indian Civilization Act of 1819" and continued until the assimilation policy finally was ended in the 1970s. The Bureau of Indian Affairs still operates boarding schools today, but with input and cooperation from tribal governments, with the goal of educating kids to be members of their communities, not to turn them white.
Students taken from their families were punished, often brutally, for speaking their home languages, or for any hint of tribal religious practices. Scholars and tribal leaders directly blame the forcible assimilation policy for the near-extinction of many Native languages.
In her Washington Post op-ed, Haaland said that across Native America, the boarding schools created a "generation of lost or injured children who are now the lost or injured aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents of those who live today." She recalled how, when she was writing a project in college, she recorded her family's history as told by her grandmother:
It was the first time I heard her speak candidly about how hard it was — about how a priest gathered the children from the village and put them on a train, and howshe missed her family. She spoke of the loneliness she endured. We wept together. It was an exercise in healing for her and a profound lesson for me about the resilience of our people, and even more about how important it is to reclaim what those schools tried to take from our people.
Today, that attempt to erase Native American languages and cultures
continues to manifest itself in the disparities our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and additional undocumented physiological and psychological impacts.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will have as its primary goal the identification of all former boarding schools and sites, as well as locating both "known and possible student burial sites" on or near the grounds of those schools, as well as identifying the names and Tribal affiliations of those buried in such cemeteries.
The Interior Department will also compile all available records on its operation of the boarding school program, and will consult with "Tribal Nations, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations" to determine how best to protect such burial sites. A final report will be due to Haaland's office by April 1, 2022.
Agnes Williams, a former social worker and an elder with the Seneca Nation, told NPR that the boarding school program had generational impacts on Native America:
Nobody escapes from the historical trauma of the boarding schools. [...] When people were brought up in the boarding school, nobody taught them how to parent. So then the next generation of unparented Indians becomes foster care and adoption, which is the next travesty.
Haaland's initiative is a good start at documenting the damage the government has done, but really dealing with that damage will take both an accounting, and efforts to repair the harm that's been done.
That can at least begin with an accurate history — we'll just close with a reminder that when the previous president appointed a team of rightwing "experts" to lay out priorities for teaching American history, the group's final report didn't mention Native Americans at all. Not even once.
[AP / US Department of interior / WaPo / NYT / BBC / NPR]
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