Burial sites found at 53 Native American boarding schools, US government says

May 11 (Reuters) – A U.S. government investigation into the dark history of Native American boarding schools found “marked or unmarked burial sites” at 53 of them, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said on Wednesday.

Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, announced the investigation last year. Releasing the preliminary findings at a news conference in Washington, he spoke through tears and a broken voice.

“Federal policies that attempted to stamp out Native identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain tribal communities face today,” Haaland said. “We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past.”

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As of Wednesday, the US government had yet to provide any real information about the legacy of the schools, which used education to change culture so they could take over tribal lands. Families were forced to send their children to schools.

To compile Haaland’s report, the researchers located records for 408 schools that received federal funding between 1819 and 1969, and another 89 schools that received no government money. About half of the schools were run by the government or supported by churches of various denominations. Many children were abused in schools, and tens of thousands were never heard from again, activists and researchers say.

The report noted that “rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse” took place in schools and is well documented, and that the investigation had so far found more than 500 children who died while in school custody. Investigators said they expect to discover many more deaths.

Haaland said he is starting a year-long “road to healing” tour to hear from survivors of the boarding school system. The next goals of the investigation are to estimate the number of children who attended schools, find more burial sites and identify how much federal money went to churches that participated in the school system, among other topics.

She said Congress had provided $7 million to support the research this year, which she said was critical to helping Native Americans heal.

Experts said the first report on the investigation had barely scratched the surface of what needs to be examined. The Department of the Interior has identified more than 98 million pages of documents that may be related to the boarding school system within the American Indian Records Repository that have yet to be evaluated. Tens of millions more pages housed in regional branches of the National Archives and Records Administration must also be examined.

Haaland, a former congressman from New Mexico, introduced legislation in 2020 calling for a Truth and Healing Commission on conditions at former Native American boarding schools. That legislation is still pending, and hearings on the most recent version of the bill are scheduled for Thursday before a US House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

Deborah Parker, head of the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition which is assisting the Department of the Interior in its investigation, said the report only scratched the surface of the trauma.

“Our children had names. Our children had families. Our children have their own languages,” he said at the news conference. “Our children had their own badges, prayers and religion before they were violently taken away by Indian boarding schools.”


The researchers examined government records and spoke with Native Americans to prepare the report. The results detail a history that dates back to at least 1801, when the first such schools were opened, and in which education was used as a weapon.

Native American affairs, including education, were the responsibility of the War Department until 1849 and the military remained involved even after civilians took over, the report noted.

The schools were described as resembling military academies in their regimentation and rigor and emphasizing vocational skills. The police were asked to force families to send their children to schools. Families were denied food as another way of forcing them to hand over their children.

“These conditions included militarized and identity-altering methodologies, on children!” said Bryan Newland, deputy secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, who is leading the investigation.

Conditions at former Indian boarding schools drew global attention last year when tribal leaders in Canada announced the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops residential school for indigenous children, as these institutions are known. in Canada.

Unlike the United States, Canada carried out a full investigation of its schools through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The US government has never acknowledged how many children attended those schools, how many children died or disappeared from them, or even how many schools existed.

The report released Wednesday included recommendations for funding programs to preserve Native American languages ​​that schools tried to eradicate and the establishment of a federal monument.

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Reporting from Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; edited by Donna Bryson, Aurora Ellis and Grant McCool

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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