Equity & Diversity

Native American Children Endured Brutal Treatment in U.S. Boarding Schools, Federal Report Shows

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 11, 2022 5 min read
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks at the Cherokee Immersion School on Dec. 3, 2021, in Tahlequah, Okla. The Interior Department is on the verge of releasing a report on its investigation into the federal government's past oversight of Native American boarding schools. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday, March 16, 2022, the report will come out next month.
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Tens of thousands of Native American children were removed from their communities and forced to attend boarding schools where they were compelled to change their names, they were starved and whipped, and made to do manual labor between 1819 and 1969, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Interior found.

At the 408 federal Indian boarding schools across 37 states or territories that Native American children were mandated to attend, children and teenagers were forced to assimilate into Western culture. These boarding schools were supported for more than a century by the United States government as well as religious institutions, according to the report.

The Department also identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 schools across the Federal Indian boarding school system, and expects to find more. Based on initial analysis, approximately 19 Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian child deaths, and the count is expected to increase to thousands or tens of thousands, according to the report.

“This is not new to us. It’s not new to many of us as indigenous people. We have lived with the intergenerational trauma of federal Indian boarding school policies for many years,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, said. What is new is the current administration’s willingness to address the long-running demands of Native Americans to acknowledge and document what went on in the government-run schools, she added.

“My maternal grandparents were only 8 years old, they were stolen from their parents’ culture and communities, and forced to live in boarding schools until the age of 13,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Many children like them never made it back to their homes. Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this earth, because they’ve lost their bodies as part of this terrible system.”

The deaths of Native American children at these boarding schools led to the erosion of American Indian tribes, Alaska native villages, and the Native Hawaiian community, the report found.

‘Lasting scars for all indigenous people’

The report is the first finding made public after Haaland commissioned an investigation into federal Indian boarding schools last June following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“Federal Indian boarding schools have lasting impact on Native people and communities across America. That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakup of families and tribal nations to the loss of languages and cultural practices,” said Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. “This has left lasting scars for all indigenous people,” he said.

The department looked into its own records for the initial investigation and found approximately 50 percent of federal Indian boarding schools may have received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization, including funding for infrastructure and personnel.

Funding for some of these boarding schools also might have come from tribal trust accounts, some of which were based on revenue from surrendering Indian territories to the United States, the report found.

Grim look at life inside the schools

Poor living conditions, brutal punishment, child labor, vocational education, and forced assimilation were common threads the investigation revealed across the boarding schools.

The schools would make Native American children use English names instead of their given ones, cut their hair, and ban or discourage the use of their native languages.

“Our children had names, our children had families, our children had their own languages,” said Deb Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Association.

“Our children had their own regalia, prayers, and religion before boarding schools violently took them away,” she said.

The punishment used at the boarding schools was often brutal, the report found. The system used solitary confinement, flogging, withholding food, whipping, and slapping as forms of discipline. Schools would also sometimes make older children punish younger children, according to the report.

Boarding schools would also rely on students to perform manual labor during school hours, such as raising livestock and poultry, chopping wood, making bricks, and working on the railroad system for boys and cooking and sewing garments for girls. Once students got out of the boarding school system, they were ill-prepared to join the mainstream economy and job market by pursuing college or a career, which led to adverse economic impact on Native American communities, the report found.

The impact of the boarding school system is still present, according to the report. In addition to the trauma and poverty the boarding school system caused for Native American communities, survivors of the system are more prone to serious health conditions, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health. The studies found that adults who attended boarding schools were three times more likely to have cancer, twice as likely to have tuberculosis, and more than 80 percent more likely to have diabetes compared to people who didn’t attend these schools.

The department will continue investigating the impact of the boarding school system, but meanwhile, Haaland and her team encouraged protecting Native American children and families, investing in cultural revitalization so children could learn their native languages and cultures, and defending the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978 to safeguard the rights and well-being of Native American children.

“This is the time right now where we can speak the truth and we can honor our loved ones,” Haaland said.

“This is a time to honor our boarding school survivors, our relatives, and the children who are still asking these questions and wondering, ‘Where is my grandfather? Where’s my auntie?’ What happened to our family? We deserve that answer.”

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