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US uncovers 500 deaths at Native American boarding schools so far


FILE – A makeshift memorial to the dozens of Native children who died over a century ago while attending a boarding school that was once located nearby is displayed under a tree in a public park in Albuquerque, NM, on 01 July 2021. The United States Department of the Interior is set to release a report on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, which it says will begin to uncover the truth about the federal government’s past oversight of Native American boarding schools. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)


A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for more than a century sought to assimilate Native children into white society has identified more than 500 student deaths at the facilities, but officials expect that number will increase exponentially as research continues. .

The Interior Department report released Wednesday puts the number of schools that were established or supported by the US government to more than 400, beginning in the early 19th century and continuing in some cases until the late 1900s. 1960s. The agency identified the deaths in the records of about 20 of the schools.

The dark history of Native American boarding schools — where children were kicked out of their families, forbidden to speak their language, and often abused — has been deeply felt across Indian Country and across generations.

Many children never returned home and the Home Office said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could reach into the thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes included illness, accidental injury and abuse.

“Each of these children is a missing family member, a person who has not been able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they have lost their lives in this terrible system,” the secretary said. ‘Inside Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years.

The agency is digging through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of documents, with the help of many Indigenous people who have had to overcome their own trauma and pain. It will be difficult to count the number of deaths because records have not always been kept.

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. It has so far identified at least 53 burial sites in or near boarding schools, not all of which have marked graves.

Tribal leaders have urged the agency to ensure that children’s remains are properly taken care of and returned to their tribes, if desired. To prevent them from being disturbed, the locations of the gravesites will not be made public, said Bryan Newland, the Home Office’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Haaland choked back tears as she described how the era of boarding schools has perpetuated poverty, mental health disorders, addictions and premature deaths in Indigenous communities.

“Recognizing the impacts of the federal residential school system cannot simply be a historical calculation,” she said. “We also need to chart a course to deal with these legacy issues.”

Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the schools’ troubled legacy and uncover the truth about the 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.

Others who spoke included Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, who tearfully recalled stories from a boarding school on the Tulalip reservation, where she is from in the State of Washington. The school had a small jail cell and a basement where at least one girl was regularly chained to a radiator and beaten, she said. Others went into hiding to protect themselves from abuse.

“I get worried when we start opening those doors for our boarding school survivors to come forward and share their stories,” Parker said.

Basil Brave Heart served in the Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge, South Dakota in the 1940s. He called getting haircuts from older students a “divide and conquer” strategy. that forced Indigenous children to participate in their own cultural destruction.

He was forbidden to practice Lakota spiritual traditions and speak their language which he says has a spiritual resonance that is difficult to translate into English.

“Removing our tongue is huge,” he said on Wednesday. “It goes to our identity.”

The Home Office acknowledged that the number of schools identified could change as more data is collected. The coronavirus pandemic and budget restrictions have hampered some of the research over the past year, said Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian community.

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 federal government still oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states that serve Native Americans, but the schools’ missions are very different from the past.

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.

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.

Conditions in boarding and boarding schools varied across the United States and Canada. While some former students reported positive experiences, school children were often subjected to military-style discipline.

James LaBelle Sr., who is Inupiaq, said he attended two federal boarding schools where he learned European and American history and language, math and science, but nothing about Indigenous cultures and traditions.

“I walked out not knowing who I was,” he said.

The Boarding Schools Coalition, which created an initial inventory of schools and shared its research with the Home Office, praised the Home Office’s work but noted the agency’s reach is limited. The coalition has identified about 90 other boarding schools that do not fall under the federal government’s criteria.

On Thursday, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled on Canada’s. Parker said it was important to reveal a fuller truth about what happened to Indigenous children.

“Our children deserve to be found,” she said. “Our children deserve to be brought home. We are here for their justice. And we won’t stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Indigenous children.”


Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at Associated Press writer Peter Smith in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.