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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Facing atrocities head-on’: Tribal leaders support Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision to investigate Native American boarding schools

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a press briefing on April 23 at the White House in Washington.  (Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the federal agency that for decades oversaw a system of boarding schools that tore Indigenous children away from their families and cultures, announced Tuesday that her department is launching an initiative to investigate and account for the schools’ legacy.

Addressing a virtual conference of the National Congress of American Indians, Haaland said the Interior Department’s role in operating the schools – where Native children were forced to assimilate to U.S. culture and often suffered abuse – makes the agency “uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long.”

“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead,” said Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo. “To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”

The move follows last month’s discovery of the remains of 215 children in a mass grave at a boarding school in Kamloops, B.C. that closed in 1969, one of at least 139 “Indian residential schools” across Canada where more than 4,100 children died between 1867 and 1996, when the last government-run school closed, according to a truth and reconciliation commission that operated in Canada between 2008 and 2015.

Tribal leaders from the Inland Northwest hailed the announcement Tuesday.

“I appreciate Secretary Haaland and her efforts to bring reconciliation to the forefront,” Gary Aitken Jr., chairman of the Kootenai Tribal Council, wrote in an email. “Recent discoveries of atrocities are nothing new to Native country. The stories of the horrific treatment have been passed down in hushed tones and trauma from generation to generation. I’m thankful that we have someone who understands us and can help facilitate meaningful reconciliation in our beautiful country. Only by facing atrocities head-on can we begin to truly heal.”

The Canadian schools were modeled on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, founded in 1879 by U.S. Army Gen. Richard Pratt, who famously summed up the “civilizing” mission of the school in an 1892 speech by saying, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

“It is time to reflect the true and actual history on this topic,” Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Council, wrote in an email. “It is necessary for healing of Tribal People as many of our ancestors lost their lives to white man diseases in these Boarding Schools. The ones that did not, were traumatized and their descendants still experience the historical trauma of the impact of Boarding Schools.”

While more than 350 schools existed in the U.S. between 1869 and the 1960s, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, there has been no comprehensive accounting of their impact.

“Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose because forced assimilation policies ended their life too soon,” Haaland said of the children who lost their lives at the schools.

“The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain our communities face, including longstanding intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of Indigenous people, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse.”

Along with Tuesday’s announcement, Haaland issued a memo directing the Interior Department to investigate the loss of life and other consequences of the boarding schools, and to submit a report to her by April 1. The investigators, led by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, are tasked with identifying the locations of boarding schools and burial sites, finding the names and tribal affiliation of children buried at the schools, and consulting with tribes on what to do with the remains.

Haaland’s announcement marks a major departure from previous federal policy and signals the U.S. government will take a more active role in accounting for the toll the boarding schools took on Native Americans.

While former Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an official apology in 2008 for the Canadian government’s role in the schools, followed by another apology in 2017 by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trudeau’s government is arguing in court that it isn’t legally responsible for the harm done at the schools, pinning blame instead on “Christian doctrine.”

Most of the schools in both the U.S. and Canada were run by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. On June 6, Pope Francis called the Kamloops discovery “shocking” and said it “further raises awareness of the pains and sufferings of the past,” but did not offer an apology.

In 2009, Congress quietly passed a resolution – attached to a defense spending bill after years of failed attempts by a Kansas GOP senator and a House Democrat from North Dakota to pass a standalone bill – apologizing “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”

The legislation, which notably didn’t admit responsibility on the part of the U.S. government and included language denying any legal liability, also called on then-President Barack Obama to “acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes … in order to bring healing to this land.”

Obama did not publicly issue an apology, and the resolution made no direct reference to boarding schools. Former state Sen. John McCoy, a Tulalip tribal member and Democrat who represented Tulalip, told NPR at the time he was disappointed the nation’s first Black president had been asked to apologize for decades of federal policy that aimed to make Indigenous people conform to “the white man’s ways,” as Indian Affairs Commissioner Thomas J. Morgan wrote in 1889.

Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said in a statement he hopes the Kamloops discovery and Haaland’s initiative “can be a start to healing and hopefully to help prevent such things from happening again.”

“We are extremely pleased to hear of Interior Secretary Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding School initiative and her willingness to provide a substantive analysis of the trauma and loss caused by the use of boarding schools in the past,” Penney said. “At this point in time, the least we can do is learn the truth about what happened to our people and allow for their loved ones to properly grieve. Healing from the effects of the use of these schools is badly needed throughout Indian Country.”

Afton Servas, the Kalispel Tribe’s public relations coordinator, said Haaland’s initiative was “long overdue,” but all those responsible for the schools need to take accountability.

“The United States government, along with religious institutions, stole children from their families, many of which never returned home,” Servas wrote in an email. “Those that did were stripped of their hair, their language, their innocence, and so much more.”

“While an inquiry is an appropriate starting point, there needs to be formal acknowledgement from both the United States and religious denominations that participated in this system. An acknowledgement of the pain, suffering, and death that the Indian boarding school system created is necessary before healing can truly begin to take place.”