Deliberate Assimilation, Destruction of Families and Communities: US Government Is Researching the Past of Indian Boarding Schools*

The U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned a report on boarding schools for Native Americans that had operated in the United States. “The investigation found that the federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate […] through education,” the authors wrote.

We have to “address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” said United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who commissioned the report.

The report’s authors have so far established the existence of 53 cemeteries at former Indian boarding schools and announced that they will continue their investigation and publish more reports. Haaland intends to send her employees to Indigenous communities to build an “oral history” database of Indian boarding schools.

The US Government Is Following in Canada’s Footsteps

The conclusions of the preliminary report of the Department of the Interior paint a morbid picture of the federal system assimilating Indigenous peoples.

The main purpose of the report was to analyze documents pertaining to cemeteries and other burial places at schools, and to establish the number and identity of Indigenous children who died during their stay in these institutions.

Haaland tasked the department with this work in June of last year, by appointing a special commission. Her decision to “comprehensively address the facts and consequences of its federal Indian boarding school policies” was prompted by reports of the May 2021 discovery of 215 unmarked graves near a residential school on the territory of the Indigenous group Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in British Columbia, Canada. Since then, surveys have found more than 1,300 burial places for Indigenous children near Canadian residential schools (the equivalent of American boarding schools).

The report was prepared under the supervision of Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior. Newland is a citizen of the Bay Mills Community (Ojibwe) in Michigan, where he served as chief judge and then chieftain. Haaland, his superior at the Department of the Interior, belongs to the Indigenous Laguna Pueblo group in New Mexico.

In the introduction to the more than 100-page report, Newland points out that further work will be needed because some federal archives were unavailable at the time of the research due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The report says that the first government-run institution for Indigenous children was established in 1819, and there were 409 federal Indian schools by 1969. Nearly half of them were managed by church organizations, which were often allocated funds by the government for this purpose.

Haaland’s commission has so far identified 53 cemeteries at former Indian schools. They contain both marked (most) and unmarked graves. The authors of the report decided not to mention the names of these places to protect them from acts of vandalism.

Committee members have so far analyzed data on burial sites at 19 federal schools and estimated that there are approximately 500 children buried there. “As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase,” the report says.

‘Cultural Assimilation, Military Drills, Identity-Alteration Methodologies’

The document also contains a general description of how the schools operated and an opinion on the role they played.

“The investigation found that the federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian languages, religions and cultural practices; and organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.”

The main goal of these schools was the “cultural assimilation and territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children.” These events were “heartbreaking and undeniable.” The authors of the report state, “The federal school system was directly destroying Indian families and tribes.”**

The attitude of the federal authorities is evidenced by the name given to the fund established in 1819 for the maintenance of schools and staff: the Civilization Fund Act.

The report concluded that, to date, “the federal government has not created any opportunity for survivors of federal Indian boarding schools, or their descendants and families, to report their boarding school experiences voluntarily,” and that support for cultural revitalization is needed for indigenous communities.**

“Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning,” Haaland said. “We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues. […] Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system.”

Haaland announced that over the next year, Department of Interior officials will visit Indigenous communities across the United States to hear stories from their members, which will serve to create “an oral history collection.”

“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,” Haaland said.

A Reality More Complicated than Politicians Would Like

The report reveals only part of the truth about Indian boarding schools. In fact, it was a much more complex phenomenon, as is evident from the numerous publications of researchers exploring the subject and the reports of the Native Americans themselves, who — contrary to the claims of the authors of this report — commented on their experiences in boarding schools, published books and recorded stories for archives all over the country. A complex, multifaceted picture of schools emerges from them; many Natives even remember these schools with nostalgia. Not only did they gain a profession and the basics of knowledge, but thanks to the schools they also got out of the poverty prevailing in the reservations. Here they also met with students from other tribes. It is from boarding schools that the leaders of the Pan-Indian movement, which at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the awakening of Indigenous awareness in the United States, come from.

The actual beginning of the boarding school system is considered to be 1879, when former Union Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt established an Indian Vocational School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While in the initial phase in some institutions there was actually a military drill, and education was guided by Pratt’s assimilation slogan “Kill the Indian, save the man,” it changed quite quickly; Pratt himself was fired in 1904, 14 years before the school was closed. The final break with hard assimilationist policies came during the New Deal period (1933-1939), when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was led by John Collier, who was friendly to Indigenous communities.

One of the more prominent boarding school records is “Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School,” the 2010 autobiography of Adam Fortunate Eagle from the Ojibwa Nation, one of the leaders of the Alcatraz Indian protest in 1969. Eagle attended Pipestone boarding school in Minnesota from 1935 to 1945 and fondly recalls the time spent there, and relations with students from other tribes as well as teachers (some of whom were Native American). For many Indigenous families living on the reservation, especially during the Great Depression, boarding schools offered better housing, better food and better clothes. At Pipestone, children were punished not for speaking their native languages, but for swearing. He himself, when his mother tried to enroll him in another school, ran away from home and returned to Pipestone, where he was welcomed back with enthusiasm.

The famous Native American teacher Lloyd Elm of the Onondaga tribe, who taught at SUNY Buffalo State College, claimed that his stay at a boarding school (Haskell, Kansas) “saved his life” and inspired him with the idea of creating schools run by Natives alone, which came true when he became a principal in New York State and Minnesota.

American Anthropologist: Not All Children Had the Same Experience

“It cannot be denied that many Native American children suffered from living in boarding schools, struggling with loneliness and homesickness, harsh discipline, bigoted and incompetent teachers, and possibly also the inability to adapt to a foreign system,” Herbert S. Lewis, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, commented to Gazeta Wyborcza.

“However, as with any other complex institutions, variation and diversity are at play here. Throughout the generations, there have been many schools attended by students from very different cultural and material backgrounds. The role was played by combinations of various individual personality traits, talents, intelligence and ambitions. We must not be deceived by the ‘essentialist’ belief that all Indigenous children who entered boarding school had the same experiences everywhere. The vast majority of the Oneida — those I worked with and those who had recorded their own memoirs as part of a government project of 1938-42 — retained completely positive ratings from the boarding schools they attended from 1890 to 1918. And they never lost the feeling that they were Oneida,” added Lewis, who has conducted research among Indian communities for many years, including among the Oneida from the Green Bay area, about whom he wrote the book “Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas” (2005).

*Editor’s Note: This article is available in its original form with a paid subscription.

*Editor’s Note: These quotations, though accurately translated, could not be verified.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply