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US to review dark history of Indigenous boarding schools

June 23, 2021

The United States federal government will investigate its past oversight of Indian boarding schools and work to "uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences.''

These institutions sought to assimilate Native American children
These institutions sought to assimilate Native American childrenImage: Circa Images/Glasshouse Images/picture alliance

The US government will probe the troubled history of Native American schools and work to find the remains of children who died in them, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said on Tuesday. 

"We must shed light on the traumas of the past," Haaland told the National Congress of American Indians via video link. 

"We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life, and the lasting consequences of these schools."

The unprecedented investigation will include compiling and reviewing decades of records to identify past boarding schools, track down known and possible burial sites at or around those schools, and find the names and tribal affiliations of students, she said.

Native Americans disenfranchised

Haaland —  the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary — last year introduced legislation seeking the establishment of a Truth and Healing Commission into the conditions at former Indian boarding schools. 

The state of former Indian boarding schools caught the global eye last month when tribal leaders in Canada announced the uncovering of unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops residential school for Indigenous children.

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the US  introduced laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the country. 

For more than 150 years, Indigenous children were separated from their communities and forced into boarding schools that aimed at assimilation.

Deb Haaland speaking during the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 20, 2020.
Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretaryImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

According to activists and researchers, many children were abused at these institutions, and tens of thousands went missing. 

The Interior Department oversaw the Indigenous boarding schools and carried out the policies of removing children from their tribes. 

Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which showed that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. 

She said the investigation process will be long, difficult and painful and will not undo the heartbreak and loss that many families suffered.

As part of the review, the agency staff is scheduled to submit a final report by April 1, 2022.

dvv/nm (AFP, Reuters)