by Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Ariz. ( Associated Press) — Deb Haaland is prompting the U.S. government to play its part in Native American boarding schools in a way that no other cabinet secretary can — backed by personal experience, of losing its native language and a broader community. Struggle felt the devastating effects.
The agency she oversees – the Department of the Interior – released a first-of-its-kind report this week that named 408 schools the federal government supported for stripping Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children died in some schools, but this number is expected to reach thousands or even tens of thousands as more research is done.
“We are uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to hide the dark history of these institutions that have plagued our families for far too long,” he said during a news conference on Wednesday. “As a Pueblo woman, it’s my responsibility and, frankly, it’s my legacy.”
The US government is unwilling to investigate itself to uncover the truth about boarding schools that operated from the late 18th century to the late 1960s. This is now possible because people who have direct knowledge of the constant trauma caused by the boarding school system are stationed in the US government.
Nevertheless, the task of uncovering the truth and paving the way for remedies will depend on the financial resources in the Indian country, which have been chronically underfunded by the federal government.
Tribes would have to navigate federal laws on repatriation to take native children who died and, if desired, home to former boarding school sites, and access burial sites on private land. There could be no help. Causes of death included illness, accidental injuries and abuse.
Boarding school survivors may also hesitate to recall a painful past and trust a government whose policies were to wipe out tribes and later assimilate them under the veil of education. Some have welcomed 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 Interior Department $7 million for its work on the next phase of the report, which will focus on burial sites, and identify the original children and their ages. Haaland also said the one-year tour would try to collect the stories of boarding school survivors for an oral history collection.
A bill previously introduced in Congress to create a truth-and-remedy commission on boarding schools got its first hearing on Thursday. It is sponsored by two Native American representatives—Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, who is Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is Chickasaw.
“Working with the interior, knowing that there are representatives in the federal government who understand these experiences not only on a historical record, but deep within themselves, their own personal stories really makes a difference,” Deborah said. Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and member of the Tulip Tribes.
More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Govern issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children in non-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed an apology for the “violence, abuse, and neglect committed by citizens of the United States on Native Americans.” This language was buried in billions of dollars in defense spending bills.
The proposed commission to seek records with the power of summons would have a wider scope than an internal inquiry. It will make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its passage, possible in the US House but more difficult in the US Senate.
Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, America enacted laws and policies to establish and support Native American boarding schools. The goal was to civilize Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funding and were willing partners.
Captain Richard Henry Pratt described the essence of federal boarding schools in a speech in 1892, where he said, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
Minnesota resident Mitch Walking Elk fled boarding schools several times in the late 1950s and early ’60s because “my soul knew this was not a good place for me,” he said.
Boarding school isn’t the only thing that has led them to distrust the federal government, even as it is set to uncover the past. In 1864, elk ancestors from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were attacked in the Sand Creek Massacre. At least 200 people died, and the bodies of the victims were mutilated.
“I have reservations about what’s happening right now because I don’t trust them,” said Walking Elk. “If Deb Haaland makes too many waves, far enough away, extremists will build something to put the brakes on it.”
Boarding school survivor Ramona Klein testified before Congress on Thursday, in which she watched her mother cry as her children boarded a large, green bus to boarding school, once being scrubbed with hard brush , and was sleeping under a scratchy woolen army blanket. She held a big rubber hand when it came to touching her at school at night “like a child’s body should not be touched.”
“It was the lonely time of my life to be in that boarding school,” said Klein, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band from Chippewa in North Dakota. “It has become difficult for me to trust other people, including people on this committee, with my feelings, my thoughts, my dreams and my physical existence. And how could this not be the result?”
Republican Representative Jay Obernolt of California said Congress would need to consider a financial investment in the proposed commission and that those who serve would do so as a public service or be compensated.
“I’m not opposed to investing substantial taxpayer resources in this commission, but I think we should be clear about those resources,” he said on Thursday.