Deb Haaland’s Investigation Into U.S. Indigenous Boarding Schools, Explained

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland prepares to take the stage during a welcome ceremony for a totem pole carved by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation on the National Mall on July 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy: Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Alterations Courtesy: Canva

In 2021, Canada’s investigations into residential schools — and the deaths of Indigenous children at them — uncovered a truth the government was unwilling to face for many, many years. Now, in the United States, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is making sure America confronts its past, and the atrocities committed at its Indigenous boarding schools, too.

Published in May 2022, the federal report marks the first time in U.S. history that the government, which sanctioned and sometimes ran these schools, has attempted to comprehensively research and acknowledge the magnitude of the horrors such places inflicted on Indigenous children, their families and communities. 

Although Indigenous boarding and residential schools have been in the news recently, you might be wondering what purpose they served — and why did they reaped so much brutality? Here, we’ll discuss the incredibly harmful impact these schools had on communities, the findings from Haaland’s report, and the steps that are being taken to foster healing from these schools’ long, dark legacy. 

What Are Indigenous Boarding Schools? 

For 150 years between 1819 and 1969, more than 400 schools were constructed in 37 states or territories. The United States government either operated these schools directly or supported private — often religious — groups that did. After all, Christian missionaries certainly laid the groundwork for Indigenous boarding schools.

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The schools all operated based on the Carlisle Industrial School model. Carlisle, the “flagship” school of its kind, was deeply rooted in assimilationism. The leadership at the school believed that providing Native youth with a “total immersion” in Euro-centric education and white customs would benefit white society. Unsurprisingly, Carlisle and other schools of its kind espoused other racist beliefs; the leadership there suggested that Indigenous students could “only” attain manual-labor jobs.

From 1879 until 1918, more than 10,000 Indigenous children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle. And that was just one of these residential schools. Thousands upon thousands of children — some as young as four — were separated from their families and communities and forced to attend these schools. Many children were transported across the country, cutting them off from their tribes entirely. 

This removal was intentional for several reasons; not only did it open up opportunities for white settlers, but it also erased ties to Indigenous communities’ ancestral homelands. “And if we look at the land policies and see what happened, we see this era was an utter disaster for Native people that made them poorer than they ever were before,” said Brenda Child, author of Boarding School Seasons.

Students at Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Part of the schools’ mission was also to strip Indigenous peoples of their heritage, forcing them to assimilate to white cultural norms and values. Students at the school were not allowed to speak their native language, for example, nor were they allowed to wear culturally significant clothing or celebrate their tribe’s traditions. 

In true white supremacist fashion, the idea was to destroy the many histories and cultures of all Indigenous people across North America. According to Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the federally funded Carlisle school, “The goal was: kill the Ind**n, save the man.” 

Deborah Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes and CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, feels there is now a great urgency to document what happened at these boarding schools. “If we don’t gather [elders’] stories and information now, we will never have their stories. And unfortunately, there were so many who never came home,” Parker said (via The Seattle Times). “We still have folks like myself and others still wondering what happened to her relative? Where are they?”

Today, federal legislation aims to promote tribal control over schools and colleges. Although the government still operates some reservation-based schools, the funding is dwindling. By 2007, most of these boarding schools had been closed, with less than 10,000 Native children enrolled at such institutions. 

How Did Boarding Schools Impact Native Students and Their Families?

At these schools, Native children were subjected to horrific treatment. Isolated from their communities, students were not only conscripted to perform hard labor, but many suffered physical and sexual abuse. Not all of them survived these horrors. At least 500 children — and counting — died. Some were murdered, while others died from abuse or neglect. 

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“And when we talk about the pain, these were beatings, tortures [of] children,” Parker said (via PBS).  “Just the other day, a member from the Alaska Native tribe shared with me that his mother was put in the basement of one of the boarding schools, she was chained to a heater, and she was beaten daily.” 

Like in Canada, many Indigenous children who were stolen from their families and tribes and forced into these boarding schools never saw their families again. Those who were killed by the residential schools were often buried on the grounds, sometimes in unmarked graves.

What Did Secretary Deb Haaland’s Investigation Reveal? 

The federal report, issued in May 2022 by the Department of the Interior, details the preliminary findings of the 53 marked and unmarked burial grounds on former residential and boarding school sites across the country. The goal of this report, and the ones that will follow, is to identify the remains of the hundreds of children who died while at the schools. This, Haaland and others hope, will help provide long-awaited closure to families, tribes and communities who lost children to these horrific institutions. 

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The report is only the first of many. In May 2022, Haaland announced a yearlong tour — called “The Road to Healing” — that will encourage former Native boarding school students to share their experiences. Their stories will be collected in an oral history to help document what really happened. 

The Investigation Continues: Grappling With Intergenerational Trauma

The investigation forces the American government to reckon with residential schools’ far-reaching atrocities and the nation’s legacy of forced assimilation, brutality and death. When Secretary Haaland was appointed to office, she made it clear that she wanted to confront the intergenerational trauma that these residential schools wrought on Native communities. 

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All of the government-sanctioned abuse and death — its own, more covered-up form of genocide — caused untold pain to Indigenous peoples, but the harm extends even further. Now, Native communities experience some of the United States’ lowest high school graduation rates and highest rates of poverty and early death. Undoubtedly, the systematic erasure of Native cultures and peoples — and the continual attacks on ancestral lands and important resources — has shaped the present. 

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland introduces President Joe Biden before he announces the expansion of areas of three national monuments at the White House on October 08, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo Courtesy: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The hope is that we find healing. The hope is that we come together as a nation to not only tell of these truths, but also to begin to heal together,” Parker explains. “And our communities have known this truth for generations. It’s time that the United States government understands these truths.”

Haaland and tribal leaders will keep pushing until the government both apologizes and makes amends to the communities hurt by these residential schools and colonialist white supremacy at large. The investigation, which is still ongoing, serves as an early measure in an undoubtedly lengthy process. Parker, for instance, recently testified before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples in support of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act. This piece of legislation would grant the commission greater access to boarding school records, many of which are held by the religious groups and governmental powers that operated them. 

Of course, combing through the 39,000 boxes is a huge undertaking, but securing this unlimited access is crucial. The truth has been kept hidden long enough. Moreover, records like these would help the commission locate the graves of murdered Native children and, perhaps, even help them identify their remains. 

For the next stage of the investigation, Congress has issued funds that total $7 million. That might sound like a lot on face value, but the figure pales in comparison to what the Canadian government allocated for similar research. That figure? $4.7 billion. When it comes to healing unresolved grief and providing reparations for these horrors, the U.S. government may need to issue more funds, but, for now, the investigation’s financial future remains unclear. 

What is clear, though, is the dire need to confront our nation’s past. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes historical trauma as “…the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over one’s lifetime and from generation to generation following loss of lives, land and vital aspects of culture.” That is, the past has a direct impact on the present. 

According to the White House’s Report on Native Youth in 2014, the major disparities in education and health persist. Not to mention, there’s a “state of emergency regarding Native youth [death by] suicide and PTSD rates three times the general public — the same rate as Iraqi war veterans.” While the residential school system may have largely shuttered, its vestiges are still harming Indigenous children today — and that sad reality must be confronted and rectified.

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