The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) recently released a historic investigative report on the federal Indian boarding school system. The report was released as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, announced in 2021 by Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior (and, the first Native American to serve as a U.S. cabinet secretary), and was announced weeks after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a school site in British Columbia.
DOI’s report outlines how, between 1819 and 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system operated more than 400 schools across 37 states or then-territories, including in Alaska and Hawaii. More than 40 of these boarding schools were in New Mexico – the third highest in the United States, behind Oklahoma and Arizona. At least 500 children were buried at 19 of the schools.
The report is part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which aims to:
- Identify Federal Indian boarding school facilities and sites;
- Identify the names and Tribal identities of Indigenous children who were placed in Federal Indian boarding schools;
- Identify (but not publicly share) the locations of marked and unmarked burial sites of remains of Indigenous children located at or near school facilities; and
- Incorporate Tribal and individual viewpoints, including those of descendents, on the experiences in – and impacts of – the Federal Indian boarding school system.
Through the federal Indian boarding school system, the U.S. government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families, aiming to eradicate Indigenous cultures and languages and seize Native territorial lands. Systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies were used in their attempts to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children through education. Enforcement of rules was often brutal, abuse was rampant, children were killed, and many other children’s lives were destroyed due to the boarding school system.
Why This Matters
Native communities were devastated by this policy of cultural genocide. In addition to the generational poverty perpetuated by the boarding school system, survivors of the system are more prone to serious health conditions, with both Indigenous lived experiences and studies from the National Institutes of Health showing that adult survivors are more likely to have cancer, tuberculosis and diabetes compared to people who didn’t attend these schools. This doesn’t even begin to address the generational trauma faced by survivors and their descendents, including the loss of Indigenous language, post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, grief and isolation.
As a first step, this report identifies the trauma perpetrated by the U.S. government on American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children, and creates pathways for recovering the histories of the institutions and children to ensure that families can begin to heal. In response to recommendations from the report, and as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, Secretary of the Interior Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, announced “The Road to Healing” – a year-long tour providing survivors of the Federal Indian boarding school system with opportunities to “share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history.”
Despite the trauma that Indigenous communities endured – and continue to face – they have continued to teach their children about the importance of culture and language in passing down history, values, beliefs and their own worldviews.
- Volume I, Federal Indian Boarding School Investigative Report, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, May 2022
- We all need to learn more about boarding schools and their legacy, Trip Jennings, New Mexico In Depth, May 13, 2022
- Healing from Boarding School Trauma Will Take Time, National Native Boarding School Coalition, July 14, 2021
- Haaland Seeks Healing for Native American Boarding School Survivors, Michel Martin, Tinbete Ermyas and Kira Wakeam, NPR, May 22, 2022
- The National Native Boarding School Healing Coalition
- Trauma and Resilience Webinars, National Native Children’s Trauma Center
- Resources Specific to American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) Communities, Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services