Report details brutal, ‘militarized’ history of residential schools

A makeshift memorial in Albuquerque to Native children who died more than a century ago while attending federal residential school. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

The atrocities committed at boarding schools designed and operated by the federal government to eradicate Indigenous language and culture were first described by the US Department of the Interior in a report released Wednesday.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held back tears as she described the scope of the survey that identifies 408 federal Indian boarding schools in 37 states that operated between 1819 and 1969. New Mexico had 43 such schools, the third in the nation behind Oklahoma (76) and Arizona (47).

Grave sites have been found at 53 different schools, but the department will not publicly share the locations due to issues of “grave theft, 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 into environments described in the report as fostering “endemic physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; sickness; malnutrition; overcrowding; and lack of health care.

US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced that the Department of the Interior would participate in a year-long tour to hear from survivors and their families about former boarding schools designed and operated by the federal government to eradicate the language and indigenous culture. (Associated Press)

The report also acknowledges that the federal government has used money from the Indian Trust Funds to pay schools – even those run by religious organizations – to take children without parental consent and force them into environments designed to destroy generational bonds. eliminating language and culture.

These tribal trust accounts held money resulting from cessions of territories in the United States.

Haaland (Laguna) said the report is the first step in addressing the role and responsibility of the US government at this time. She gave no explicit support for financial reparations for the tribes, but also did not rule out the possibility. She responded to a question about restitution by saying that President Joe Biden “fully understands the obligation of the United States to Indian tribes. He fully understands the federal fiduciary responsibility to the tribes.

In the meantime, the next phase of the federal government’s response will be to bring this research to the public and find ways to help heal the generational trauma it has caused.

“It has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people because there is not a single Native American, Alaskan Native or Hawaiian Native in this country whose life has not been impacted by the schools,” said declared Newland (Ojibwe).

Haaland announced that the Home Office would participate in a year-long tour to listen to boarding school survivors and their families engage in discussions about the past. The department is committed to directing people to mental health and spiritual resources to help with healing, she said.

Haaland discussed the importance of language preservation in an effort to recover from the era of boarding schools. She said her grandmother was forced to attend boarding school when she was 8, which led to her mother’s trauma that disconnected Haaland from her own culture. “I don’t speak my language because my mother was afraid to teach me when we were growing up.”

In April, the Home Office suggested it could work with the Indian Health Service to fund counseling services to help people get therapy on the subject. However, there is no specific financial commitment from Congress at this time to fund such an endeavor.

Haaland said Congress appropriated $7 million to fund the boarding school investigation.

Larry Larrichio, an assistant professor of history and research associate, holds a copy of a late 19th-century photograph of students at a Native boarding school in Santa Fe. The U.S. Department of the Interior released a report on Wednesday seeking to uncover the truth about the federal government’s past oversight of Native American boarding schools. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

Most of the boarding school sites were on active or disused military sites. From the beginning, schools were “designed to separate a child from his reservation and his family, strip him of his traditions and tribal mores, force the complete abandonment of his mother tongue and prepare him never to return to his people,” according to the inside report.

In 1904, the federal government understood the importance 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 Indian nature” .

In 1928, the Meriam Report examined the condition of Native Americans in the United States and found that “the major disruption of Indian family and tribal relations came from the federal Indian boarding school system”.

The 1928 report also concluded that boarding schools acted as de facto child labor camps, citing a disproportionate amount of time students spent on professional or labor-intensive work instead of actual schoolwork like math or reading. Even the youngest students were forced into manual labor such as logging, railroads, carpentry, irrigation, well digging, and construction.

The Home Office survey shared the itinerary of a typical school day in 1917 for a first-grader at a boarding school. It shows 110 minutes of learning English, then 20 minutes of drawing, 10 minutes of breathing exercises followed by 240 minutes of “industrial work”.

An example at the Mescalero Boarding School in New Mexico shows that in 1903 Mescalero Apache “the boys sawed over 70,000 feet of lumber and 40,000 shingles and made over 120,000 bricks”.

The federal government also circumvented rules regarding the separation of church and state by paying for church-run schools to accommodate Native American students.

A 1908 Supreme Court decision, Quick Bear v. Leupp, allowed the federal government to use money held in Indian treaty and trust accounts to fund children “induced or coerced to attend Indian boarding schools operated by religious institutions or organizations.”

The court said paying churches did not violate Indian appropriation laws and “prohibiting such spending would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”

Handprints painted red cover the empty spot of a park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Thursday, July 1, 2021, where a historical marker for Native children who died while attending a nearby boarding school was removed. The US Department of the Interior is expected to release a report on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, which it says will begin to uncover the truth about the federal government’s past oversight of Native American boarding schools. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

The generational impact of boarding schools will be the next development in the historical survey.

Research on boarding school survivors shows higher rates of chronic health conditions that could be passed on to children. “The heightened trauma faced by men in the Indian boarding school system may have produced increased stress, which can then affect the biological systems of the body,” the report said. “These stressors can then introduce epigenetic alterations which are then passed on to their children, also known as epigenetic inheritance.”

“The children of the first participants of [federal Indian] boarding schools continued to attend, as did their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, leading to an intergenerational pattern of cultural and family disruption under direct and indirect support from the United States and non-federal entities .

This story originally appeared in Source New Mexico – – part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news provider.


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