The Department of the Interior on Wednesday released a report detailing some aspects of the United States’ horrific history of forcibly assimilating Indigenous children in the 19th and 20th centuries by making them attend federal boarding schools.
At least 500 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died while in the care of boarding schools run by the U.S. government, according to the report. The department said it expects the death toll to increase as its investigation continues.
The report is just the first volume of findings in the ongoing Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a project commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last June to address the "troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies." The initiative has already identified more than 400 schools and over 50 gravesites.
Haaland, the first Indigenous person to head the Interior Department, said in a statement Wednesday:
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. We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face.
The findings illustrate the nationwide efforts to erase Indigenous culture and force Indigenous groups to assimilate, sometimes through brutal acts of violence. Indigenous children who broke school rules were flogged, denied food, whipped, slapped and cuffed, the report stated. Sometimes older children were made to punish younger children.
Coming at a time when Republicans are pushing education policies meant to whitewash school lesson plans they deem harmful and unpatriotic, the boarding school report doubles as a warning of what could come if the right-wing ideological purity crusade continues. Republican-led legislatures across the country have instituted a wave of restrictive policies banning culturally conscious discussions about social inequality, instead preferring a warped view of history that almost exclusively depicts the U.S. in a positive light.
With that in mind, the purpose behind the initial boarding school report — and the initiative more broadly — seems all the more significant.
In a statement, Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said the report “presents an opportunity for us to reorient our Federal policies to support the revitalization of Tribal languages and cultural practices.”
“This reorientation of Federal policy is necessary to counteract nearly two centuries of Federal policies aimed at the destruction of Tribal languages and cultures," he continued.
With this report, the Biden administration has provided evidence of how cultural erasure has proceeded in the past. Depending on its ultimate conclusion and recommendations, it could also be a helpful roadmap in the future, showing possible ways to remedy that erasure.