What a new study reveals about child deaths at these government-supported schools
The U.S. government just released a report on Native American boarding schools. Here’s why faith is part of the story
A new report on government-supported Native American boarding schools reveals that more than 400 such institutions existed within the United States between 1819 and 1969 and that at least 500 children died while under a school’s care.
“The investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools. ... As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase,” the report said.
The report also highlighted other forms of violence, including the forced separation of children from their families and communities. The scale of the devastation caused is “heartbreaking,” said Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who made the report possible by creating the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative last summer, in a statement.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” she said. “We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”
The boarding school system was launched in the early 19th century as a way to culturally assimilate children from the American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. Attendees were “prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused,” The Associated Press reported.
The children were also often forced to adopt English names, to cut their hair and to perform military drills, according to the report.
“Federal Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children,” the report said.
Religious organizations often lent their support to the system in the form of funding, infrastructure and workers. In some cases, the government contracted with a school that had been set up by people of faith.
“The United States at times paid religious institutions and organizations on a per capita basis for Indian children to enter Federal Indian boarding schools operated by religious institutions or organizations. As part of the Federal Indian boarding school system, the Department contracted with several religious institutions and organizations including the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, and the Protestant Episcopal Church,” the report said.
Pope Francis apologized last month for the Catholic Church’s role in a similar boarding school system in Canada. That country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on this issue released its last report in 2015, according to Religion News Service.
“A U.S. House subcommittee on Thursday will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada. Several church groups are backing the legislation,” The Associated Press reported.
The statement from Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and other Interior Department officials noted that the new report is just the first volume in on ongoing series.
“Together, we can help begin a healing process for Indian Country, the Native Hawaiian Community and across the United States, from the Alaskan tundra to the Florida everglades, and everywhere in between,” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, in the statement.