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Report identifies abuses of Native American children in boarding schools

U.S. Interior Department commissioned report after discovery of unmarked graves at Canadian boarding schools

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of boarding schools supported by the U.S. government for 150 years sought to forcefully assimilate Native American and Indigenous children into white society, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the Interior Department.

The report, issued May 11, identified 408 schools in 37 states or territories that tens of thousands of children were forced to attend from 1819 to 1969. The period largely coincides with the forced removal of many tribes from ancestral lands.

It also said there are at least 53 marked or unmarked burial sites associated with the schools.

Additionally, about 19 of the schools accounted for more than 500 child deaths, the report said. The Interior Department said it expects the number of recorded deaths to increase.

The federal government directly ran many of the boarding schools and contracted with Catholic, Protestant and other Churches to operate others. The report said about 50% of the schools received support or involvement from a religious institutions or organizations.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo and Catholic, commissioned the report last June by establishing the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to undertake a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops afterward said through a spokesperson that the bishops will “look for ways to be of assistance” as information about the schools was being compiled.

Haaland’s action followed the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Just two days after the U.S. initiative was announced, 751 unmarked graves were discovered at a second site, a former Catholic residential school in Saskatchewan.

“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 in a statement with the release of the report.

A second volume of the report is expected to provide more detailed information on the burial sites, the size of the government’s investment in the school, and the effects of the schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said.

Conditions varied in the schools, with some students reporting positive experiences. However, many students lived under “systematic militarized and identity-alteration” practices meant to assimilate them into white society, the report said.

Practices included renaming children from Indian to English names; cutting long hair; discouraging or preventing the use of Indigenous languages, religions and cultural practices; and organizing children into units to perform military drills.

Haaland said the report shows the need for an all-encompassing response form the federal government “to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian boarding school policies set out to break.”

Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis acknowledged the report with sadness and an apology.

“As a bishop in Minnesota, I read with sadness the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report released today by the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Archbishop Hebda said in a statement posted on the archdiocese’s website May 11.

“It is an important first step in what I anticipate will be a painful but necessary journey for our country and for our Church,” he added.

In Oklahoma, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa also called the report a good first step.

“It is important we understand and appreciate our history so we can make better and more informed decisions moving forward,” they said.

“In Oklahoma, we have begun the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project to learn more about the experiences of Native American students and their families in Catholic boarding schools in the state through 1965.”

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