Tribal leaders testified on Capitol Hill after a new report from the Interior Department revealed tens of thousands of Native American children were forcibly taken from their families over a 150-year period and sent to boarding schools. The hearing was about a bill to create a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies.
According to the report, the United States operated 408 Indian boarding schools in 37 states from 1819 to 1969. They were largely concentrated in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico and held up to 1,000 students each. Investigators confirmed at least 500 children died while attending, but experts said the real number could be in the thousands or tens of thousands.
The report stated the schools tried to “assimilate” the children using identity-alteration methodologies, including renaming the children with English names, cutting their hair, preventing them from speaking their own language or practicing their religion and forcing them to participate in military drills.
Children who broke the rules were subject to punishments including solitary confinement, flogging and withholding food.
“As the federal government moved the country west, they also moved to exterminate, eradicate, and assimilate Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. “The languages, cultures, religions, traditional practices and even the history of native communities, all of it was targeted for destruction.”
This subject was emotional for Secretary Haaland because she is Pueblo and her grandparents were taken to one of the schools.
“I am here because my ancestors persevered. I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother and my mother,” Haaland said.
School survivors and the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs are calling for federal programs to help Native Americans revitalize their languages and cultural practices. Alaska native James LaBelle Sr. was taken to a school when he was 8 years old and spent 10 years between two of the facilities.
“I learned everything about the European American culture, its history, language, civilizations, math, science. But I didn’t know anything about who I was as a Native person,” LaBelle said. “I came out not knowing who I was.”
There will be another volume to the Interior Department report in which investigators will focus on identifying burial sites and determining how much money was spent to fund the schools. The initial investigation found the government may have used money from tribal trust accounts, including money from cessions of Indian territories to the United States.