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'Our children had names': Interior Department releases first report on Indian boarding schools

A black and white photo outside of the Albuquerque Indian School in 1885. Many people, including children of differing age groups, are seen standing in front of three buildings.
National Archives
Albuquerque Indian School in 1885. The Presbyterian Church opened it in 1881 then the federal government started operating it in 1884. It is part of the United States traumatic history of kidnapping Indigenous children and to assimilate them into white society.

News brief

Editor's note: As a warning for those impacted by the trauma of Native American boarding schools, this story discusses some of what happened there.

The federal government's effort to document and address the intergenerational traumas of the Indian boarding school era began Wednesday with a report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The first volume in the agency's investigation shows that the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools in 37 states between 1819 and 1969, including 127 in the Mountain West. The schools' goals were to assimilate an untold number of Indigenous children into white society and eradicate their cultures.

"We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement announcing the report's release. "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 announced a year-long tour, called "The Road to Healing," to hear from boarding school survivors, connect them with trauma-informed support and help create a permanent oral history.

The report says the schools deployed "systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies," including giving the children English names, cutting their hair, and making them perform military drills.

James Labelle Sr. is Inupiaq and the first of two vice presidents at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. He went to boarding school at age eight.

"I learned everything about the European-American culture – its history, language, civilization, math, science,” Labelle said during Wednesday's news conference. "But I didn’t know anything about who I was as a Native person."

Deborah Parker, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and CEO of the coalition, introduced herself during the news conference using her traditional name, tsicyaltsa.

"Our children had names. Our children had families. Our children had their own languages," tsicyaltsa said. "Our children had their own regalia, prayers and religion before Indian boarding schools violently took them away."

The report also identified at least 53 marked and unmarked burial sites, a number that's certain to increase. Just 19 federal boarding schools accounted for more than 500 deaths, according to the investigation's initial analysis.

In its next report, the Interior Department intends to include the approximate number of children taken to boarding schools, the total number of burial sites, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children interred at those burial sites.

The House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States will hold a hearing Thursday on the proposed Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act – a bill to create a commission to document policies of the era and provide recommendations to the federal government as to how to heal the intergenerational trauma left in the schools' wake.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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