Interior Department report details the brutality of federal Indian boarding schools
United States government spent tribal trust funds in the attempt to eradicate Indigenous people and culture
Albuquerque Indian School in 1885. (Photo from the National Archive)
The atrocities committed at boarding schools designed and run by the federal government to eradicate Indigenous people were outlined by the U.S. Interior Department for the first time in a report published Wednesday.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held back tears as she described the scope of the investigation that identifies 408 federal Indian boarding schools across 37 states that operated between 1819 and 1969. New Mexico had at least 43 of these schools, the third most in the country behind Oklahoma (76) and Arizona (47). Nevada had three schools.
Burial sites were found at 53 different schools, but the department won’t publicly share the locations due to concerns of “grave-robbing, vandalism and other desecration,” Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland said.
These schools used “militarized” tactics to assimilate Native American children as young as 4-years-old in environments described in the report as fostering, “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care.”
The report also acknowledges that the federal government used money from Indian Trust Funds to pay schools — even those run by religious organizations — to take children away without parental consent and force them into environments that were designed to destroy generational bonds by eliminating language and culture.
This means Native American tribes experienced their children being stolen while also being made to pay for the abuse designed to destroy their own existence. Those tribal trust accounts held money that was a result of territory cessions to the United States.
Haaland (Laguna) said the report is the first step in addressing the U.S. government’s role and responsibility for this era. She didn’t give any explicit support of financial reparations for tribes but didn’t shut down the possibility, either. She responded to a question about restitution by saying President Joe Biden, “fully understands the obligation of the United States to Indian tribes. He fully understands the federal trust responsibility to tribes.”
In the meantime, the next phase of the federal government response will be to take this research to the people and find ways it can assist with healing the generational trauma it caused through racist and genocidal policy.
“This has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people because there is not a single American Indian, Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian in this country whose life hasn’t been affected by the schools,” Newland (Ojibwe) said.
Haaland announced the Interior Department will take part in a yearlong tour to listen to boarding school survivors and their families engaging in talks about the past. The department is committed to directing people to mental health and spiritual resources to help heal, she said.
“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” Haaland said. “We are uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long. As a Pueblo woman, it is my responsibility and frankly it’s my legacy.”
Haaland discussed the importance of language preservation in an effort to recover from the boarding school era. She said her grandmother was forced to attend a boarding school at 8-years-old, which led to her mother’s trauma that disconnected Halaand from her own culture, “I don’t speak my language because my mother was afraid to teach me when we were growing up.”
Reading the details in the report is difficult for Natives and non-Natives alike, and it necessitates substantial investment into mental health services to support people who may be talking about this history for the very first time. In April, the Interior Department suggested it could work with Indian Health Services to fund counseling services to help people with therapy on this topic. However, there is no specific financial commitment by Congress at this time to fund such an endeavor.
Halaand said Congress appropriated $7 million to fund the boarding school investigation.
No nutrition, no consent, no freedom
Most boarding school sites were on active or decommissioned military sites. From the onset, the 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,” according to the Interior report.
If you’re looking for a more eloquent description of the method, here is what the Indian Affairs Commissioner William A. Jones wrote in 1902:
By 1904, the federal government understood the significance of separating families, writing in official documents that, “The love of home and the warm reciprocal affection existing between parents and children are among the strongest characteristics of the Indian nature.”
In 1928 the Meriam Report looked at the condition of Native Americans in the U.S. and found that the, “main disruption to the Indian family and tribal relations had come from the Federal Indian boarding school system.”
The plan worked.
Erasing the cultural identity of children through abuse was also seen in the conditions of the boarding schools themselves, and studies from the time show the federal government knew how rancid the environments the kids were living in.
Reports of living conditions at schools in 1896 showed, “three children to each bed,” at Kickapoo Boarding School, Kansas. At Rainy Mountain Boarding School in Oklahoma, “single beds pushed so closely together to preclude passage between them, and each bed has two or more occupants.” Nutrition was nonexistent as the same report concluded, “the outstanding deficiency is in the diet furnished the Indian children, many of whom are below normal health.”
When kids stepped out of line, they were often whipped, sometimes at the hands of older students, according to the report.
The 1928 Meriam Report also concluded that boarding schools were acting as de facto children labor camps citing a disproportionate amount of time students were spending doing vocational or labor-intensive work instead of actual schoolwork like math or reading.
Even the youngest of students were forced into manual labor such as lumbering, railroad, carpentering, irrigation, well-digging and construction.
The Interior Department investigation shared the itinerary of a typical school day in 1917 for a first grade student at a boarding school. It shows a required 110 minutes learning English, then 20 minutes of drawing, 10 minutes of breathing exercises that is followed by 240 minutes of “industrial work.”
An example at the Mescalero Boarding School in New Mexico shows that in 1903 Mescalero Apache, “boys sawed over 70,000 feet of lumber and 40,000 shingles and made upward of 120,000 bricks.”
When the federal government noticed low enrollments they went into communities and took children. According to the report, “In 1919 it was discovered that only 2,089 of an estimated 9,613 Navajo children were attending school, and thus the Government initiated a crash program of Navajo education.”
Those children were sent to boarding schools without their parents’ consent, the Interior Department said.
Church and state
The federal government also circumvented rules regarding separation of church and state by paying schools run by churches to take in Native American students.
A 1908 Supreme Court ruling, Quick Bear v. Leupp, allowed the federal government to use money held in Indian treaties and trust accounts to fund children, “induced or compelled to attend Indian boarding schools that were operated by religious institutions or organizations.”
The court said paying churches did not violate the Indian Appropriation Acts and “to forbid such expenditures would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”
Further expanding the church’s reach on tribes, the federal government also gave these organizations land that was for Native Americans under treaty laws. The report concluded, “The basic approach of subsidizing various religious groups to operate schools for Indians did not come to an end until 1897.”
The generational impact of boarding schools will be the next development in the historic investigation, but one thing is clear, the outcomes of the attempted genocide did disrupt families and communities.
Research about boarding school survivors shows higher rates of chronic health problems that could be passed down to children. “The increased trauma that men faced in the Indian boarding school system may have produced increased stress, which then may affect the biological systems of the body,” according to the report. “These stressors may then introduce epigenetic alterations that are then transferred to their children, also known as epigenetic inheritance.”
“Children of the first attendees of [federal Indian] boarding schools went on to attend, as did their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, leading to an intergenerational pattern of cultural and familial disruption under direct and indirect support by the United States and non-federal entities.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.