U.S. announces investigation into boarding schools set up to assimilate Native Americans

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland predicts ‘long and difficult’ process

historic nomination

Native American politician Deb Haaland announces probe into boarding schools in the U.S. Photo: APTN file


The United States says it will create a comprehensive report on Native American boarding schools, including identifying “cemeteries or potential burial sites.”

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was announced by Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, which oversees the country’s natural resources and its relations with 574 Tribal Nations.

Haaland, whose great-grandfather was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, wants to know where the burial sites are, how many lives were lost, and the identities and tribal affiliations of the children interred at each location.

She said the review and search will “shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”

The announcement comes as Canada grieves the discovery of more unmarked graves at the site of former residential schools. So far, nearly 1,000 gravesites have been identified by Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia using ground-penetrating radar.

“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel,” Haaland (Dem-N.M.) said in a news release.

“But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Native American

Haaland, also the first Native American to hold a cabinet-level position, made the comments while speaking to the National Congress of American Indians 2021 Mid Year Conference in Washington, D.C.

She noted Tribal Nations, Alaska Native corporations and Native Hawaiian organizations would all be consulted as part of the review.

She said she expects a final report on the investigation by April 1, 2022.

The U.S. established boarding schools under the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the release said, “to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”

It is estimated that — similar to the residential school system in Canada — “hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities” during a 150-year period.

But it was outrage over the unmarked graves in Canada that moved Haaland to act.

“The recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School prompted the Department to undertake this new initiative with the goal of shedding light on these past traumas,” the release said.

The Interior Department, which Haaland oversees, continues to operate residential boarding schools through the Bureau of Indian Education.

In sharp contrast to the policies of the past, the release said “these schools aim to provide a quality education to students from across Indian Country and to empower Indigenous youth to better themselves and their communities as they seek to practice their spirituality, learn their language, and carry their culture forward.”

Investigative Reporter / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.