They were torn from their parents’ arms, changed their names and cut their hair, forbidden to speak their own language or practice their customs, and severely punished for any act of disobedience. Many did not survive, their bodies buried next to the schools they were forced to attend.
The U.S. government has released the first volume of an investigation into the degrading treatment of Native American children in federally-run Indian boarding schools over a century and a half. So far, the investigation has established that more than 500 children have died in 19 of these schools. “This number is expected to increase” as the investigation progresses, says the report, which estimates the number will climb into the “thousands or tens of thousands” as the horror of what happened in these schools will be revealed.
The investigation was launched after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools. A similar survey was launched in the United States, and the first results were published on May 11 by the United States Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the protection of federally owned lands and the management of programs relating to indigenous communities.
Research shows that between 1819 and 1969, the federal system of boarding schools for Native American children included 408 federal schools in 37 states or what were then considered territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven in Hawaii. The survey has identified marked and unmarked burial sites in 53 schools and indicates that more are likely to emerge.
The report was presented by current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first serving Native American woman whose own grandparents were separated from their parents at the age of eight by authorities. “The consequences of federal policies on Indian boarding schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as four years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” he said. she said at a press conference.
Haaland believes that the results of this investigation should be used to give voice to the victims and their descendants in order to heal the scars inflicted on the indigenous populations.
The 106-page report describes how the attempted cultural assimilation of Indian children was part of a larger goal to deprive Native American tribes and Alaska Natives and Hawaiians of their land. “I believe this historical context is important to understanding the intent and scope of the federal Indian residential school system, and why it has persisted for 150 years,” Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland wrote in the letter. accompanying the report.
The document goes on to compile historical evidence that supports this conclusion while highlighting the hundreds of treaties signed under duress in the second half of the 19th century that served to relieve Native Americans of their territories. Some have offered education in return, but the report notes that there is ample evidence that many children were forcibly separated from their parents without the consent of the family and, in fact, some parents paid with their lives for their resistance.
One of the appendices includes maps showing the location of boarding schools, with black dots covering the entire map of the United States, although they are particularly dense in what is now Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.
In many schools, children were involved in animal husbandry, agriculture and poultry farming, milking, fertilization, tree felling, brick making, cooking and sewing. It was considered part of their education, but the report says they left school with little that could help them contribute to the country’s economy as adults. Under cover of a so-called education, the students were, in effect, used as child labour.
The report documents how a policy of deliberate uprooting was carried out, with the federal government often collaborating with religious organizations and institutions to run the boarding schools. Not only were the children separated from their parents and relatives, but the schools insisted on mixing students from different tribes, which meant that they necessarily had to use English to communicate.
Indian Affairs Commissioner William A. Jones stressed in 1902 that there was a need for perseverance regarding the initiative and compared Native Indian children to caged birds. He said the first generation wants to fly out of the cage because it retains its instincts, but after several generations the bird would rather live in the cage than fly away. The same goes for the Indian child, he added, according to the report. “The first savage Redskin placed in the school resents the loss of freedom and yearns to return to his savage wooden home.” But, over time, these children develop “new rules of conduct, different aspirations and a greater desire to be in contact with the dominant race”.
The inquiry has drawn up a catalog of the mistreatment and abuse suffered by children, beyond separation from their families and forced confinement. “The federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic weaponization and identity-altering methodologies in an effort to assimilate Native American children,” the report said.
“Boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withhold food; whip; slaps; and handcuffs. The report adds that older children were sometimes forced to punish younger ones. Those who attempted to escape from the schools were severely punished.
The investigation has already discovered 53 burial places on the grounds of these boarding schools and in 19 of these centers more than 500 child deaths have been recorded. The report does not go into a direct analysis of the cause of death, but notes that the whole system of assimilation and uprooting was “traumatic and violent”.
Although the death toll is in the hundreds, the Department of the Interior anticipates that the ongoing investigation “will reveal that the approximate number of Indian children who have died in Federal Indian Residential Schools is in the thousands or tens of thousands.” , many of which are unidentified. and buried in mass graves. “The death of Indian children while in the care of the federal government or federally supported institutions has led to the breakdown of Indian families and the erosion of Indian tribes,” the report concludes.