For 150 years, from 1819 to 1969, the federal government operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states (including 15 in Washington). Prior to this investigation, there has never been a comprehensive list of Federal Indian boarding schools.
Boarding schools attracted the attention of news media in recent years as unmarked burial sites at Canadian boarding schools were discovered; now the DoI has documented 53 burial sites at U.S. Indian boarding schools, including 33 marked sites, six unmarked sites, and fourteen sites that mix both marked and unmarked burials.
Native children were forcibly removed from tribal lands — often by the War Department as it fought wars to roust tribes from their own lands in violation of signed treaties — and sent to boarding schools, as well as to Indian day schools, sanitariums, asylums, stand-alone dormitories, and orphanages.
The Department found that approximately half of the Federal Indian boarding schools may have received support or involvement from a religious institution. Missionary organizations were often funded by the federal government to lead efforts to “civilize” Indians (in the barbaric words and mindset of the time). The Department also found evidence that the federal funds to support the boarding schools were taken in part from Tribal trust accounts managed by the federal government as part of treaties with the tribes.
Here’s a description form the report on the methods used in Federal Indian boarding schools:
The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, May 2022, pages 7-8
The Federal Indian boarding school system predominately included manual labor of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children as part of school curricula, including but not limited to the following: livestock and poultry raising; dairying; western agriculture production; fertilizing; lumbering; brick-making; cooking; garment-making; irrigation system development; and working on the railroad system.
The Federal Indian boarding school system 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.
Federal Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.
According to the report, approximately 90 of the schools may still operate as educational facilities, though not all of them still board children or receive federal funding.
The DoI has not been able to complete its investigation yet due to COVID restrictions and lack of sufficient funding, but expects to continue it through to completion. It expects that it will discover additional burial sites, both marked and unmarked, as it does so. The department has not publicly disclosed the locations of the burial sites it has found to-date “in order to protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites,” while it proceeds forward guided by federal law related to excavations on federal and/or tribal lands.
The report makes eight recommendations for next steps:
- Continue the full investigation to its conclusion.
- Identify surviving Federal Indian boarding school attendees.
- Document Federal Indian boarding school attendee experiences.
- Support protection, preservation, reclamation, and co-management of sites across the Federal Indian boarding school system where the Federal Government has jurisdiction over a location.
- Develop a specific repository of Federal records involving the Federal Indian boarding school system at the Department of the Interior Library to preserve centralized Federal expertise on the Federal Indian boarding school system.
- Identify and engage other Federal agencies to support the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, including those with control of any records involving the Federal Indian boarding school system or that provide health care to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, including for the provision of mental health services to students attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) operated and funded schools.
- Support non-Federal entities that may independently release records under their control.
- Support Congressional action on exemptions from FOIA for Indian burial sites to protect them; Native language revitalization; Indian health research; and a Federal memorial to recognize the generations of Native children that experienced the Federal Indian boarding school system.
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