FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Deb Haaland is pushing the U.S. government to consider its role in Native American boarding schools like no other cabinet secretary could, backed by her personal experience, a it struggles to lose its own native language and a wider community that has felt the devastating impacts.
The agency she oversees, the Department of the Interior, released a first-of-its-kind report this week that names the 408 schools the federal government supported to strip Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children died in some of the schools, but that number is expected to reach the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is done.
“We are in a unique position to help in the effort to cover up the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for far too long,” he said during a Wednesday news conference. “As a woman of the people, it is my responsibility and, frankly, it is my legacy.”
The US government has not been open to investigating itself to discover the truth about boarding schools that operated from the late 18th century to the late 1960s. It is now possible because people who know firsthand the persistent trauma caused by the boarding school system are positioned in the United States government.
Still, the work to uncover the truth and create a path to healing will depend on having financial resources in Indian Country, which has been chronically underfunded by the federal government.
Tribes will have to get around federal repatriation laws to bring home Native children who died and are buried in former boarding schools, if they so choose, and may not have any recourse to access burial sites on private land. . Causes of death included illness, accidental injury, and abuse.
Boarding school survivors may also be hesitant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policies were to eradicate the tribes and later assimilate them under the veil of education. Some have embraced the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.
Haaland, the first and only Native American cabinet secretary, has the support of President Joe Biden to investigate further. Congress has provided the Department of the Interior with $7 million for its work on the next phase of the report, which will focus on burial sites and identifying Native children and their ages. Haaland also said a year-long tour would seek to collect stories from boarding school survivors for an oral history collection.
A bill that was previously introduced in Congress to create a truth and healing commission in boarding schools got its first hearing Thursday. It is sponsored by two Native American US representatives: Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, who is a Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is a Chickasaw.
“Working with the Interior, knowing that there are representatives in the federal government who understand these experiences not just in a historical record but deep within themselves, their own personal stories, really makes a difference,” said Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribes.
More than two decades ago, Deputy Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual violence committed against children in off-reservation schools. Then, in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed an apology of sorts for “the violence, mistreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.” The language was buried deep in a multi-billion dollar defense spending bill.
The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior investigation to search for records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its passage, possible in the US House but more difficult in the US Senate.
Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the US enacted laws and policies to establish and support boarding schools for Native Americans. The goal was to civilize the Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funds and were willing partners.
Captain Richard Henry Pratt described the essence of federal boarding schools in a speech he gave in 1892 where he said, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
Minnesota resident Mitch Walking Elk ran away from the boarding schools he attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s several times because “my spirit knew it wasn’t a good place for me,” he said.
Boarding schools aren’t the only thing that has led him to distrust the federal government, even when it seems willing to uncover the past. In 1864, the ancestors of the Walking Elk from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were attacked in the Sand Creek Massacre. At least 200 people were killed and the bodies of the victims were mutilated.
“I have my reservations about what’s going on right now because I don’t trust them,” Walking Elk said. “If Deb Haaland makes too many waves, the far right, the extremists will manufacture something to stop this.”
Boarding school survivor Ramona Klein testified before Congress on Thursday and described watching her mother cry as her children boarded a large green bus to boarding school, scrubbed them with a stiff brush once they got there and slept under a scratchy cotton blanket. army wool. She put on a big rubber hand when she talked about being touched at school at night “as no child’s body should be touched.”
“Being in that boarding school was the loneliest time of my life,” said Klein, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band from Chippewa in North Dakota. “It has made it difficult for me to trust other people, including the people on this committee, with my emotions, my thoughts, my dreams, and my physical being. And how could that not be the result?
Republican Rep. Jay Obernolte of California said Congress would need to consider the financial investment in the proposed commission and whether those serving would do so as a public service or would be compensated.
“I’m not opposed to investing substantial taxpayer resources in this commission, but I think we need to be explicit about what those resources are,” he said Thursday.