For about 100 years, the U.S. government supported a system of boarding schools where more than 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children were stripped of their culture, their languages, and their religions and forced to assimilate to white customs.
That policy, which continued until the 1960s, has continued affects on native communities today, says a bill filed this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.
The United States has never fully accounted for the harms caused by the schools, the lawmakers said. Their bill, which has attracted a bipartisan list of cosponsors, would form a “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy” to compile records and oral accounts of what happened in at 367 Indian boarding schools across 30 states. Those schools educated children as young as five years old and sometimes forced them into labor in white communities far from their homes, advocacy groups say, but many records of their practices have been lost or destroyed.
The legislation uses some blunt language to make the case for a deep examination of the schools’ history.
“The Indian Boarding School Policy was adopted by the United States Government to strip American Indian and Alaska Native children of their indigenous identities, beliefs, and traditional languages to assimilate them into White American culture through federally funded Christian-run schools, which had the effect of cultural genocide,” the bill says.
An early model for those off-site boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn., where founder Gen. Richard Pratt operated under the motto “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Education Week included the Carlisle school in a previous series on Indian education. A timeline shows an archival photo of long-haired students when they first arrived at the school wearing clothing from home. In the next photo, taken four months later, they have short-cropped hair and military-style clothing.
“I know not many people are aware of the history of Indian boarding schools, and I know it’s not taught in schools—but our country must do better to acknowledge our real history and push for truth and reconciliation,” Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, said in a statement. “The commission that U.S. Senator Warren and my colleagues want to create will be the first step to the healing that Native communities desperately need.”
Warren, who has previously teamed up with Haaland on bills that address native issues, called the boarding school policy “a stain on America’s history.”
Today, Native American students still lag behind their white peers in academic outcomes, and their stories are frequently overlooked in U.S. history texts. At public schools that work with large populations of Native American students, educators say policies of the past have led to generations of distrust of the government and the education system. In Oregon, for example, a group of districts sought to tackle chronic absenteeism among native students by rebuilding connections with their communities and by incorporating native language and symbols into their classrooms.
A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights documented some of those ongoing harms, calling boarding schools a “crucial precursor to many of the existing problems for some Native Americans.”
The commission formed by that bill would also develop recommendations for the U.S. government to “acknowledge and heal” the trauma caused by its support of the schools and to stop “modern-day assimilation practices carried out by State social service departments, foster care agencies, and adoption services.”
In 2014, a similar commission in Canada determined that more than 4,000 Indigenous students died while attending government-funded boarding schools there.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a non-profit organization formed to address the legacy of Indian boarding schools in the United States, called a commission “long overdue.
“There can be no change for the future without acknowledgement of the past and there can be no racial equity for all if the conversation doesn’t start with the first nations of these lands,” said a statement from Christine Diindiisi McCleave, the organization’s CEO and a citizen of Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation.
Photo: The student body of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a model for other boarding schools, taken around 1885. -Carlisle Indian School Project at Dickinson College