Department of the Interior Releases Investigative Report into Indigenous Boarding Schools

Last year, mass graves were discovered at an Indigenous boarding school in Canada. In response, CPR News on Aug. 2, 2021 reported Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, visited Colorado in July 2021 and announced a new federal program to look into similar schools in the U.S. that sought to force the assimilation of Indigenous children.

CPR noted that three of the Colorado boarding schools included the Teller Indian School (later called the Teller Institute) “in Grand Junction, the Southern Ute Boarding School in Ignacio and a school that is now Fort Lewis College in Durango.” At the time the Teller Institute opened in 1886, hundreds of similar, federally run schools were in operation in the U.S. 

Last week, the Denver Post reported a federal investigation found five Indigenous boarding schools operated in the state for decades where hundreds of children died. The Denver Post listed the Colorado schools as: “Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus [Teller Indian School], 1892-1956; Good Shepherd Industrial School in Denver, 1886-1914; Grand Junction Indian School, 1886-1911; Southern Ute Boarding School in Ignacio, 1886-1981; and Ute Mountain Boarding School in Towaoc, 1907-1942.”

The schools were part of various federal policies to assimilate Indigenous children. The May 11 federal report states that “After 1871, Congress enacted laws to compel Indian parents to send their children to school and to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations to ‘secure the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children who are wards of the Government in schools maintained for their benefit by the United States or in public schools.’” 

The report also found the U.S. government paid religious organizations “on a per capita basis for Indian children to enter Federal Indian boarding schools operated by religious institutions or organizations.” According to the report, the schools also “[o]ften us[ed] active or decommissioned military sites, Federal Indian boarding schools ‘were designed to separate a child from his reservation and family, strip him of his tribal lore and mores, force the complete abandonment of his native language, and prepare him for never again returning to his people.’” 

The schools “deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education,” the report states. The report notes practices included but weren’t limited to “(1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.”

The report states children who ran away were recaptured and punished harshly with some evidence of corporal punishments. “[R]ules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing,” the report says, noting that sometimes the older children were forced to punish younger children.

Religious institutions and organizations and Tribal trusts the U.S. government held may have contributed to the funding of the schools, the investigation found. 

The report notes that “approximately 90 schools (22 percent) might still operate as educational facilities. However, not all 90 institutions still board children or are federally supported.”

Recommendations from the report include continuing a full investigation into the schools, “voluntary identification of surviving now-adult attendees,” documenting attendee experience and supporting the “protection, preservation, reclamation, and co-management” of school sites with federal jurisdiction. 

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Haaland in the May 11 Department of the Interior press release. “We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

“With the President’s direction, we have begun working through the White House Council of Native American Affairs on the path ahead to preserve Tribal languages, invest in survivor-focused services, and honor our obligations to Indigenous communities,” said Haaland. “We also appreciate the ongoing engagement and support for this effort from Members of Congress and look forward to continued collaboration.”

The May 11 release noted the report identifies next steps that will be taken in a second volume, aided by a new $7 million investment from Congress through fiscal year 2022.

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