It took generations to get here, but the truth of U.S. Native boarding schools is finally coming to light.
Years of advocacy by Indigenous people and leadership from the first Native American interior secretary, Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, led to last week’s release of the first official accounting of the history of U.S. Native boarding schools.
U.S. Native boarding schools operated for over 150 years and used harsh punishments and family and community separation to enforce the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” as Capt. Richard Henry Pratt notoriously put it in 1892. Fifteen of the schools were located in Washington state.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition partnered with the department to create the investigative report. Coalition CEO Deborah Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, located north of Everett, said the document is only the first step. Much more work is needed to collect information and share the firsthand stories of elders who survived the boarding schools as children.
There is great urgency to collect these testimonies now. With elders passing away, the truth is being lost. “If we don’t gather their stories and information now, we will never have their stories. And unfortunately, there were so many who never came home,” Parker said. “We still have folks like myself and others still wondering what happened to her relative? Where are they?”
Parker said the trauma of the boarding school era led many families to keep their experiences secret. “Unfortunately, our grandmothers, grandfathers would share a little bit,” Parker said. “They didn’t want us to feel hurt by what happened to them. They didn’t want us to carry that trauma.”
Even if survivors did tell their story, Parker said, they were often not believed or their experiences ignored. “We know that our ancestors prayed that someone would tell the story they couldn’t.”
I spoke with Parker during a recess Thursday as she testified before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. in Washington, D.C., in support of HR5444, the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act.”
It was the first hearing for the bill, which would give broader authority to the commission and allow it to use subpoena power to collect records, as religious organizations and local governments are often reluctant to share, Parker said. These records, among other things, would help to locate the graves of missing and murdered Indigenous children who vanished during the boarding school era.
The Interior Department report identified 408 federal schools across 37 states and then-territories between 1819 and 1969. The report said at least 500 children died at the schools, but that number is expected to rise exponentially as more research is done — with some estimates in the tens of thousands.
To give a sense of the scale of the research challenge ahead, for the Interior Department alone, there are 39,000 boxes of records and 98.4 million pieces of paper to review to find where Native children were taken and what might have happened to them.
Congress allocated $7 million for the next phase of the investigation; in contrast, the Canadian government allocated $4.7 billion to support Indigenous communities affected by residential schools.
Matthew War Bonnet (Sicangu Lakota), of Snohomish, spoke during the hearing about his experience as a child. Now 76, War Bonnet submitted written testimony to the committee that his eight years at the St. Francis boarding school in South Dakota were “painful and traumatic.” He wrote that corporal punishment was common and priests would also lock the children outside during cold weather as punishment. They would isolate the children or restrict their food, he said. Since they were forbidden to speak their native language, when they went home for the summer, it became difficult to communicate with his parents who spoke Lakota.
“All of us kids that attended the boarding school, we never spoke about our experiences,” War Bonnet said. “We said nothing. I still think about all the kids I went to school with. All the things they went through. All the hurt and the rage, and the feeling of nothingness that these schools caused them. Many didn’t even recognize what had happened to them until many years later. These boarding schools caused long term trauma.”
War Bonnet’s experience is consistent with the Interior Department report, which said, “Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment, such as solitary confinement, ‘flogging, withholding food, … whipping[,]’ and ‘slapping, or cuffing.’ ”
The schools used “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies,” the report said, to force Native children to assimilate, by changing their names, cutting their hair, forbidding their languages and cultural practices — all under threat of violent punishment.
“The goal was to take away our Indianness and remove us from our language and our parents,” Parker said.
Going forward, the U.S. government and religious institutions need to not only open their records and history to scrutiny, but take the next step and be accountable for their role in this history and make meaningful apologies and amends.