Federal report alleges decades of cultural eradication, child abuse, unmarked burials at infamous Federal Indian boarding schools


Ciricahua Apaches at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania as they looked upon arrival. (Library of Congress photo)

By John Dobberstein, Editor

The U.S. Department of the Interior released what it says will be the first volume of an investigative report detailing the legacy of Indian boarding schools where sexual, physical and emotional abuse and unmarked graves are being alleged.

DOI Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released Volume 1 of the investigative report, which was called for as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive effort to address the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies.

The investigation found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then territories. In many cases, children were forcibly taken from their homes and enrolled in the schools so they could be assimilated to American culture.

The greatest concentration of schools in the Federal Indian boarding school system was in present-day Oklahoma with 76 Federal Indian boarding schools (19%t of total); Arizona with 47 schools (12% of total) and New Mexico with 43 schools (11% percent of total).

Initial investigation results show that approximately 50% of Federal Indian boarding schools may have received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization, including funding, infrastructure and personnel.

In most cases, families were unable to see their children or able to locate grave sites if their child had died.

Haaland announced the Federal Indian Board School initiative last June, which was shortly the discovery of 215 unmarked graves last year by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The DOI’s investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the school system.

Based on the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative investigation’s initial analysis, approximately 19 Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian child deaths. As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase.

DOI says it’s recruiting staff with the requisite skill sets — including Federal Indian law and policy and history and community knowledge — to identify additional locations of marked and unmarked burial sites across the Federal Indian boarding school system.

Rampant abuse

The report highlights some of the conditions children endured at these schools and raises important questions about the short- and long-term consequences of the federal Indian boarding school system on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.

The investigation found 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.

This included, but isn’t 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.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the investigation found that the school system largely focused on manual labor and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies.

Many of the schools were crowded beyond capacities, with two or more children sharing beds.

The report alleges “rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse, disease, malnourishment” and a lack of health care as major problems. In some cases, “flogging, withholding food … whipping and slapping or cuffing” was used to enforce the rules.

'Heartbreaking and undeniable'

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said Wednesday.

“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. 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.”

The DOI report lists boarding schools that once operated in Eufaula (2), Tahlequah (5), Muskogee (5), Pawhuska (3), Coweta, Okmulgee and Sapulpa.

One of the schools detailed in the report was the Coweta Boarding School, formerly known as Kowetah School, which records show was a mission boarding and day school as early as 1851 and as late as 1909 a tribal boarding school. The school is listed in a 1907 report as Coweta Boarding and received federal funding as a tribal school for the benefit of Creek Nation.

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