On Wednesday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland gave a devastating testimony about the US government’s decades-long policy of forcibly removing Native American children from their families and placing them in violent remote boarding schools designed to assimilate them into white culture.
“The effects of federal policies on boarding schools for Indians, including the intergenerational trauma caused by forced family separation and cultural eradication, have been inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old and are heartbreaking,” Haaland told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which held hearing to review the first-of-its-kind investigative report from the Department of the Interior, which examines exactly how the government has pursued its policy of detaining indigenous children over the years.
In the report, for the first time in more than 200 years, the US formally revised or even acknowledged the scope and breadth of its former policy of erasing the culture, language, and people of Native Americans.
From 1819 to 1969, the Home Office operated hundreds of these boarding schools throughout the country. Tens of thousands of children have been subjected to severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Some have died. Others simply disappeared. The purpose of these schools is the founder of one of the flagship boarding schools, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, put it in 1879: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, shared some of the report’s key findings with the committee. The report is part of a broader effort by the Department of the Interior, along with congressional legislative efforts to help indigenous peoples achieve belated reconciliation and healing.
A departmental review of federal records has shown that the government is targeting the removal of Indigenous children as part of a broader effort to take land from the tribes. The report also indicated that the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 schools in 37 states or territories, including 21 in Alaska and seven in Hawaii.
In addition, the report found that approximately 50% of federal Indian boarding schools may have received money or personnel from religious institutions or organizations. On occasion, the federal government paid religious groups to enroll First Nations children in federal Indian boarding schools run by these institutions and organizations.
“Like all natives, I am a product of this terrible policy of the assimilation era,” Haaland said breathlessly. “My grandparents were taken from their families to federal Indian boarding schools when they were only 8 years old and forced to live away from their parents… until they were 13 years old.”
The Home Secretary said investigators have identified at least 53 schools with marked or unmarked burial sites where the bodies of Native American children who died at the school were placed. The report presented at Wednesday’s hearing is Volume 1; The next volume is expected to provide more burial sites and perhaps more details about Indian boarding schools, the children who were there, and the dates of the facilities’ operation.
Interior Department officials also plan to begin visiting tribal communities and hearing survivors of former Native American boarding schools and descendants of students. The first audition will take place in Oklahoma, and the department is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to have medical professionals on site to help people deal with the trauma they may be experiencing by talking about what they or their families have been through.
“We work with the tribes to make sure we reach out to us, so they help us plan where to hold sessions,” Haaland told the committee. “We want to make sure we document it. If people want to share publicly, they can. We will close this to the public, so if people don’t want to share with the public, they can.”
The Home Secretary said it didn’t escape her that she now heads a department that once tried to exterminate Native Americans, including her.
“I have a unique opportunity to address the long-term effects of this policy,” Haaland said. “Now I have direct oversight of the very department that ran and oversaw the implementation of the federal Indian boarding school system.”