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People across North America — and likely beyond — have watched in horror as the remains of hundreds of young indigenous people have been found in Canada at the sites of so-called residential schools in several provinces.
So far, more than 1,000 bodies have been found at just three former school sites. More than 130 sites have yet to be examined.
The tragic stories of Native children, many forcibly removed from their homes, and the deaths that were covered up for decades have prompted apologies and calls for investigations.
“For many Indigenous people, however, the most shocking element of the story is not the discovery of the graves but the fact that it’s taken so long for non-Natives to acknowledge the grim details of this long-ignored history of Indian boarding and residential schools, a story that is part of both U.S. and Canadian history,” Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin, wrote recently in Indian Country Today.
This reckoning isn’t just happening north of the border.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has identified 367 Indian boarding schools in the U.S., many of them in western states. That’s twice as many as in Canada. It is estimated that 60,000 children attended these schools in the United States. Records about the schools, many of which had cemeteries on the grounds, are scant.
The schools began in the U.S. under the auspices of the The Civilization Fund Act, which was passed by Congress in March 1819. The act called for “the civilization of the Indian tribes adjoining the frontier settlements” and appropriated $10,000 a year for this work.
The schools, which spread across the country in the 19th and 20th centuries, were government funded and often run by churches. Although the act called for consent for such education, in practice many Native American children were forcibly taken from their homes.
The education soon became about assimilation into white, European culture. The children were beaten, starved and abused if they spoke their Native language, wore Native clothing or showed signs of their Native culture.
“The purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed. For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities,” the U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said last month.
This history has gotten scant attention in most of America. That will change, because of the Canadian deaths and a new initiative announced last month by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico.
Haaland announced the creation of a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which will conduct a comprehensive review of the legacy of federal boarding school policies.
“The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in remarks announcing the review during a National Congress of American Indians conference. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
For far too long, the acknowledged history of America’s Indigenous people has been incomplete, with some of the worst instances of violence and abuse getting little attention. Too often, our history is told from only one perspective — those with the most power.
Revealing the horrific history of residential schools should be the beginning of a long-overdue conversation that can lead to a better understanding of the need for a reset on relations between America’s Native people, our government and non-Native communities.