'Our children had names': New report outlines grim legacies of Indian boarding schools
The languages, cultures and history of Native American tribes were "targeted for destruction" by federal Indian boarding schools, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Wednesday, and some of the children who attended those schools never made it home.
Haaland, whose grandparents were taken to boarding schools at the age of 8, said her agency had begun the work of chronicling the worst of the abuses and trying to find out what happened to the students who were lost in the system, an attempt to "honor our trust obligations to Indigenous communities."
The secretary made her remarks as the Interior Department released its first report on Indian boarding schools and their impacts on Native peoples throughout the United States.
Chemawa Indian School in Salem is one of the four off-reservation boarding schools the federal government currently runs. At more than 140 years old, it is the oldest continuously operated and federally run Indian boarding school in the United States.
Seeking healing:Families of former Chemawa students seek answers, healing
Today, Chemawa has more than 300 students enrolled but at least 30,000 children attended the school in Chemawa's first 96 years alone.
The report is the first step in the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a series of examinations into the generational impact of 408 federal boarding schools and more than 1,000 religious and privately run schools upon Native peoples, and how to address those impacts.
Deborah Parker, the CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, spoke during an often-tearful news conference outlining the report's release and next steps.
"Our children had names," Parker said. "Our children had homes. They had families. They had their languages, their regalia, their prayers and religions."
But as Parker, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, pointed out, a system of federal, private and religious-run boarding schools over more than 150 years did its best to wipe out thousands of years of Native languages, cultures and family ties. The damage done to these children, and to the generations that followed, was immense, she said.
The report was commissioned by Haaland in 2021 following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children in Canadian residential schools. Like the U.S. schools, the Canadian residential school system sought to wipe out Native cultures, languages and traditions, and assimilate Indigenous children.
Just as the U.S. government's failure to consult with and respect the practices of Indigenous peoples' land stewardship may have led to the environmental tragedies of the 20th and 21st centuries, Haaland said, federal policies moved to exterminate, eradicate and assimilate Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.
"The languages, cultures, religions, traditional practices and even the history of Native communities was targeted for destruction," Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, said. "Nowhere is that clearer than in the legacy of federal Indian boarding schools."
Haaland said her own grandparents were taken from their parents and placed in boarding school at age 8. They joined tens of thousands of other Indigenous children as young as 4 who were forced into boarding schools run by the Interior Department and religious institutions.
Ongoing quest for answers
Oregon Gov. Kate Bown called the report a "somber reminder" of the "nation's legacy of colonialism, violence and intergenerational trauma against Indigenous and tribal students and their families" in a tweet.
"We must recommit ourselves to building a just and equitable country, to ensure that our Indigenous communities are able to grow & heal from these terrible acts," Brown added.
Chemawa Indian School was one of the 408 federal schools across 37 states that operated between 1819 to 1969 identified in the Department of Interior's investigation. The official list of Federal Indian boarding schools lists nine schools in Oregon in addition to Chemawa:
- Forest Grove Indian Training School in Forest Grove.
- Grand Ronde Boarding School in Grand Ronde.
- Kate Drexel Industrial Boarding School in Pendleton.
- Klamath Agency Boarding School in Chiloquin.
- Siletz Boarding Schoolin in Sletz.
- Simnasho Boarding and Day School in Simnasho.
- Umatilla Boarding and Day School in Pendleton.
- Warm Springs Boarding and Day School in Warm Springs.
- Yainax Indian Boarding School in Beatty.
Oregon's U.S Sen. Jeff Merkley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Interior, released a statement following the release of the report calling it an important acknowledgment of injustices in the state and the country. He also said he looks forward to taking further steps to right historic wrongs as chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
"Oregon played a role in this painful history, with 10 different federal Indian boarding schools since statehood. By compiling the first official count of these schools and initial list of burial grounds, the federal government is finally taking a significant step to address the devastating consequences of its actions and help create a path forward for Indigenous people to recover from the pain and betrayal," Merkley said in the release.
Families of former Chemawa Indian School students have long called for answers.
They spoke to the Statesman Journal last year about their desire to discover precisely what happened to their ancestors and their hope for a public apology for the trauma endured.
An emotional great-niece of Tillie Franklin recounted her experience discovering Franklin's burial sitenear the entrance of Chemawa's cemetery. Franklin's siblings were put into different off-reservation boarding schools after their family home burned down in 1916.
"I can still hear my grandmother say to me that she never saw Tillie again," Lillian Medina said.
It took decades for her to find out Franklin had been sent to Chemawa. School records identified Franklin's family as unknown.
Advocates organized a run last year to raise awareness for unidentified children buried at Chemawa. The school's cemetery was established in 1886, a year after the school was moved from Forest Grove to its current location.
SuAnn Reddick, a former volunteer historian for Chemawa, conducted research for 25 years to compile a list of names of those buried at the cemetery. Her research was published last year in partnership with Eva Guggemos, an archivist and associate professor at Pacific University.
According to the website:
- At least 270 students died in the custody of the schools at Forest Grove and Chemawa between 1880 and 1945.
- 175 of those children were buried in the school cemetery.
- The remains of approximately 40 students were returned home near the time of their deaths.
- The locations of approximately 50 student remains are unaccounted for. Maps indicate there could be up to 40 plots in the cemetery that contain remains of unidentified students or staff.
Reddick said she had reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Interior to offer her research but neither she nor Guggemos received any inquiries from the DOI about their work in publishing the new website with deaths at Chemawa.
Effort to locate graves, acknowledge trauma
The federal report stipulates that due to missing records, the exact numbers may never be known, but Haaland said one goal of the new initiative is to enumerate them as fully as possible.
Many of these children never made it home. The report seeks to locate those children and bring them home.
To date, the Interior Department and its partner, the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, has identified 53 burial sites, both marked and unmarked, and hopes to locate all of them. The department will not make public the specific locations of the identified burial sites to protect them against grave-robbing, vandalism and other disturbances, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said during the news conference.
Raising awareness:Dozens run to raise awareness of unidentified remains at Chemawa
Another legacy of these schools was the intergenerational trauma inflicted on children, families and communities. Newland said the impacts of the boarding schools have left lasting scars on Indigenous peoples.
"That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families from the break up of families and tribal nations to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives," Newland, an Ojibwe and a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, said.
"There's not a single American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian in this country whose life hasn't been affected by these schools. We haven't begun to explain the scope of this policy era until now."
Haaland and Parker referenced a recent study by researcher Ursula Running Bear that found adults who attended boarding schools now suffer from poor physical health. They also said Native people have the highest rates of suicides, children in foster homes and in the criminal health system.
Jim LaBelle Sr., an Inupiaq from Alaska and vice-chair of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said Alaska Natives are 18% of the state's total population, yet represent 40% of people in the state's criminal justice system.
Report sets out next steps
Newland and Haaland said an all-of-government approach will be necessary to rebuild the bonds within Native communities that the boarding school system set out to break. Haaland added that President Joe Biden supports the initiative.
"We have begun working through the White House Council of Native American Affairs on the path ahead to preserve tribal languages, invest in survivor-focused services, and honor our trust obligations to Indigenous communities," Haaland said.
The report identifies the next steps that will be taken in a second volume, aided by a new $7 million investment from Congress through fiscal year 2022.
In addition to locating the remaining burial sites, the agency will determine an approximate amount of federal funding directed to support boarding schools, produce a list of students brought to the schools over the years, including tribal affiliations, from existing records and a deeper investigation into the impacts of the schools on Indigenous communities today.
On Thursday, the Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee will hold the first hearing on a bill to establish a truth and healing commission on Indian boarding schools.
The bill, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, would further the Interior Department's work to investigate the boarding schools and the policies that created them. It would also develop recommendations to protect students' graves, support repatriation of the children interred in graveyards and discontinue the removal of Indigenous children by state social services, foster care agencies and adoption agencies.
"We will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children," Parker said.
Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.