Eradicating culture, separating children from their parents, and ignoring children’s emotional needs. These strategies could be plucked from today’s headlines, but they are the tried-and-true education policies that the US has admitted to utilizing for 150 years to drive Native Americans to assimilate and, notably, to obtain Indian territorial land.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) earlier this summer released a 106-page report detailing how the US government “applied systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in the Federal Indian boarding school system to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education.”
According to the BIA, the government used children’s education to “replace the Indian’s culture with our own.” This was considered “the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s white inhabitants, of helping the whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land,” according to the report.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, ordered the report last year. She is the first Native American to hold the position of cabinet secretary in the United States.
Haaland has requested a probe into the deaths and long-term effects of the Federal Indian boarding school system.
In a letter introducing the report, Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, wrote, “This report shows for the first time that the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states [or then-territories] between 1819 and 1969, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven schools in Hawaii.”
Another report that expands on the study is in the works.
Newland claims that “The Federal Indian boarding school policy was intentionally targeted … at children to assimilate them and, consequently, take their territories.”
The report recommends increased funding as well as the revitalization of tribal languages and cultural traditions, which Newland believes is required to begin the healing process.
In 1871, Congress stopped negotiating treaties with Indian tribes and began regulating Indian affairs through statutes, executive orders, and agreements, according to the report. Around the same time, Congress passed legislation requiring Indian parents to take their children to school and empowering the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations ensuring the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children, whom the government deemed wards of the state.
The 1969 Kennedy Study, cited in the present report, stated that “many Indian families resisted the Federal Government’s assault on their lives by refusing to send their children to school.”
Without parental consent, the Department of Interior transported children to off-reservation boarding schools, often in distant states, where they suffered “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care,” according to the report.
Children were given English names and attire after they arrived at boarding school. Their hair was cut, and they were forbidden from speaking in their own language, practicing their religion, or engaging in cultural practices. Children were divided into units and forced to participate in military training, labor, and corporal punishment.
All of this was done with the intention of permanently severing family relationships and preventing students from returning to the reservations. According to the report, the system caused intergenerational trauma.
According to the report, the Haskell Institute in Kansas purposefully mixed Indian children from 31 different tribes in 1886 to disrupt tribal relations and prevent the use of Indian languages. The Department of the Interior wanted school graduates from different tribes to intermarry so that their children’s mother tongue would be English. The Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Chippewa, Comanche, Caddo, Delaware, Iowa, Kiowa, Kickapoo, Kaw, Mojave, Muncie, Modoc, Miami, New York, Omaha, Ottawa, Osage, Pawnee, Pottawatomie, Ponca, Peoria, Seneca, Sac and Fox, Seminole, Shawnee, Sioux, and Wyandotte were among those affected that year.
According to the 1928 Meriam Report, which was prepared at the request of the then-Secretary of the Interior, work done by children in these boarding schools would likely be a violation of child labor laws in most states.
With a focus on vocational training, the government implemented a half-day schedule, with students spending half of the day in academic subjects and the other half in work. They worked in lumbering, on the railroad, carpentry, blacksmithing, fertilizing, irrigation system construction, well-digging, creating furniture, including mattresses, tables, and chairs, cooking, laundry, ironing services, and garment-making, according to the study.
At the time, schools said they couldn’t afford to run their operations solely on funds supplied by Congress. Students were responsible for these responsibilities in order to keep the facilities running. The report notes that this labor had a monetary value.
The schools were provided annual operating funds, but the federal government likely utilized money stored in tribal trust accounts and revenues from the sale of tribal land to run the schools, according to the report.
“It is apparent that proceeds from cessions of Indian territories to the United States through treaties—which were often signed under duress—were used to fund the operation of Federal Indian boarding schools. As a result, the United States’ assimilation policy, the Federal Indian boarding school system, and the effort to acquire Indian territories are connected,” the report says.
The programs were run by missionary church groups who were paid by the US government. According to the report, it had contracts with the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Church, the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions, the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Home Missions, the Catholic Indian Missions Bureau, and the Protestant Episcopal Church.
The missionaries were sometimes given no education or training at all. According to the report, the government had no rules to follow or oversight over the programs.
The majority of schools do not require a cemetery, but these ones did. Over 500 students were found dead in a preliminary investigation of 19 institutions.
“The intentional targeting and removal of … children to achieve the goal of forced assimilation of Indian people was both traumatic and violent,” the report says. “The department found hundreds of Indian children died throughout the Federal Indian boarding school system and it believes continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at these schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”
According to the department’s investigation, there are at least 53 separate burial sites across the school system, some of which are marked, while others are unmarked or badly maintained.
“The deaths of Indian children while under the care of the federal government, or federally-supported institutions, led to the breakup of Indian families and the erosion of tribes,” the report says.
The department has been in contact with tribal leaders to discuss cultural concerns about burial sites, such as future burial site protection and the possibility of repatriation or disinterment of remains. “In order to protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites,” the study states, “the department will not make public the specific locations of burial sites associated with the Federal Indian boarding school system.”
The study makes several recommendations, one of which is to fund a full investigation. Through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress appropriated $7 million in new appropriations for fiscal year 2022. The report requests that the investigation be expanded and that money be retained for fiscal year 2023.
It also recommends locating and formally documenting surviving boarding school students’ historical recollections and experiences, as well as researching current consequences like as health, substance misuse, and violence.
It also suggests that native language revitalization be advanced through sponsoring the development of native language revitalization programs in both Bureau of Indian Education-funded and non-BIE-funded schools.
The report recommends that scientific studies on long-term health impacts be funded to promote Indian health research.
In addition, the report recommends erecting a federal memorial to honor the generations of children who were subjected to the Federal Indian boarding school system.
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