Student Well-Being

American Indians Sue Federal Government Over Abuse Allegations

By Julie Blair — April 23, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: This story incorrectly identifies Vern Duus. He is a legislative consultant for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Indian Education Association.

Seven American Indians who allege they were sexually and physically abused while attending federally mandated Indian boarding schools are seeking $25 billion in damages from the U.S. government because, they claim, federal officials knowingly allowed such abuses to occur.

The class action was filed earlier this month in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, in Washington, on behalf of some 100,000 individuals who attended such schools from 1890 until the present day, said Jeffrey M. Herman, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. The government had a contractual agreement to protect those children, he said, as outlined in various treaties signed by U.S. officials and Indian leaders.

“Some of the worst things you could ever imagine happened at these schools,” Mr. Herman contended, citing rapes, beatings, and other forms of torture inflicted upon children as young as 6 years old. “It was cloaked by the government for so long,” he maintained, “and the victims didn’t want to talk about it.”

Recent news reports about sexual assaults of minors by Roman Catholic priests brought back memories for the named plaintiffs, Mr. Herman said, all of whom are members of the Sioux Nation and attended schools in South Dakota. Most of the boarding schools were run by religious organizations, the lawyer added, and the plaintiffs may file suit against those groups as well, he said.

“This goes back more than 100 years, and it covers ... almost all Indian children who are now adults,” Mr. Herman said.

Neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior that oversees Indian education, nor the boarding schools named in the lawsuit returned repeated phone calls. BIA officials told the Associated Press earlier this month that they could not comment because they had not seen the complaint.

Long Overdue?

The lawsuit maintains, however, that federal officials admitted to such abuse, and it quotes Kevin Gover, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs during the Clinton administration, as stating:

“This agency set out to destroy all things Indian. ... Worst of all, ... the BIA committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. The trauma of shame, fear, and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country.”

The lawsuit does not say when or where Mr. Gover purportedly made those comments.

Some Native American advocates were surprised by the lawsuit, but others said knowledge of such practices was widespread throughout Indian communities.

“It was a reality, and it happened in big numbers,” said Marlin Mousseau, a Native American who has studied abuse by educators in boarding schools and attended such institutions himself in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. “I suspect it is still going on. This [lawsuit] is long overdue.”

It also has the backing of such well-known activists as Russell Means, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of New Mexico last year.

Difficult to Prove

The federal government assumed responsibility for educating American Indian children in the late 19th century and attempted to strip them of their culture, which officials at the time considered inferior to the white culture, the lawsuit says.

Such children were forcibly taken from their homes around age 6 and “Americanized” at boarding schools, many of which were managed by Catholic priests and nuns, according to the legal documents. Braids were snipped, and children’s clothing was replaced by more “American” outfits, it says. Those caught speaking their native languages or following Indian spiritual practices were severely punished, the lawsuit asserts.

“The physical beatings and sexual abuse were justified by schoolteachers, administrators, and officials as a means to ‘send the devil out’ of the Native American children,” the lawsuit states.

In 1978, the Congress ended the practice of forcibly transferring children to such schools, the lawsuit states. Although Indian boarding schools still exist, most are run by local tribes.

While some, like Mr. Mousseau, see the lawsuit as a legitimate claim, it strikes others as odd, especially the timing.

Information about the mistreatment of American Indians has long been available in history books, said Vern Duus, the executive director of the National Indian Education Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

“It does seem very, very far-fetched that it could be successful in court,” he said of the lawsuit. “There must be a statute of limitations, and proving these things would be extremely difficult.”

If damages eventually are awarded to the plaintiffs, Mr. Duus worries that the money would come out of funds the BIAa chronically underfinanced agency, observers say—earmarks for Indian children’s schooling.

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