A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for more than a century sought to assimilate indigenous children into white society has identified more than 400 such schools that were supported by the US government and more than 50 associated burial sites, a figure that could grow substantially.
The report released on Wednesday by the US interior department expands the number of schools that were known to have operated for 150 years, starting in the early 19th century and coinciding with the removal of tribes from ancestral lands.
The dark history of the boarding schools – children were taken from their families, prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused – has been felt deeply through generations of families.
Many children never returned home. The department’s work focused on burial sites and trying to identify the children and their tribal affiliations is far from complete.
“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 four years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Deb Haaland, the interior secretary, said in a statement.
Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the federal government’s role. The 408 schools her agency identified operated in 37 states or territories, many in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
The interior department acknowledged the number of schools identified could change. The pandemic and budget restrictions hindered some research, said Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
The US government directly ran some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by US laws and policies to “civilize” Native Americans.
The report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada.
Haaland also announced a year-long tour for interior officials that will allow former boarding school students from Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent oral history collection.
“It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous Peoples can continue to grow and heal,” Haaland said.
Boarding school conditions varied across the US and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, children were subjected to military style discipline and had their long hair cut. Early curricula focused heavily on vocational skills, including homemaking for girls.
The interior department found at least 53 burial sites at or near the US boarding schools, both marked and unmarked, and said the number of children who died at federal boarding schools could be in the thousands or tens of thousands.
“Many of those children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites far from their Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and families, often hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away,” the report said.
Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure children’s remains are properly cared for and delivered back to their tribes if desired. The locations of the sites will not be identified, to prevent them from being disturbed, Newland said.
Accounting for the whereabouts of children who died has been difficult because records weren’t always kept. Ground penetrating radar has been used in some places.
A second volume of the report will cover the burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the department said.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which created an early inventory of the schools, has said interior’s work will be an important step for the US in reckoning with its role in the schools but noted that the agency’s authority is limited.
Later this week, a US House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada. Several church groups are backing the legislation.