After centuries of silence and inaction, the U.S. government has released a historic accounting of Indian boarding schools and their devastating legacy — a methodical report announced today by the woman at the helm of the Department of the Interior, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary.
At a Washington, D.C., press conference, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland detailed the horrors Native children and their families experienced in a vast and previously uncounted network of more than 400 boarding schools that the government ran or supported.
In its 102-page report, her federal agency also said it had identified 53 marked and unmarked burial grounds on school sites where American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children were sent for more than a century. Often, the Interior Department acknowledged, families were never told that their children had perished.
There is “ample evidence” in federal archives, the report states, that the government “coerced, induced, or compelled Indian children to enter the Federal Indian boarding school system.” The treatment of students included “solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing.”
In announcing the findings of her department’s year-long inquiry, a clearly emotional Haaland also described the schools’ calamitous legacy.
“The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain that tribal communities face today,” Haaland said at a Washington, D.C., press conference. The newly released Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report notes “cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of Indigenous people, premature deaths, poverty and loss of wealth, mental health disorders, and substance abuse.”
The report released today is a rare public accounting of injustice, although it lacked the high-profile witness testimony of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on racism and police brutality, or the 1983 commission that reviewed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Native American tribes, legal advocates and activists have spent years pushing legislation to create a similarly expansive congressional review of boarding schools.
“While we move towards a place of truth-telling with the release of today’s Federal Indian Board School Initiative report, there is still much work to be done,” Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota), the board president of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said in a statement sent to The Imprint. The next step needed, she added, is Congressional passage of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, which would convene boarding school survivors, a broad cross-section of tribal representatives, and experts in education, health, and children and families — “to fully express and understand the impacts of the federal policy of Indian child removal.”
Yet, contained in the Interior report are significant but little acknowledged facts: The nation’s boarding schools for Indigenous children — located in dozens of states, far from their homes and tribal communities — had a central aim. They were established in the 19th century to support the federal government’s violent campaign to take over Native lands and erase Indigenous culture, according to the Interior Department report. This brutal program extended well into the 20th century, causing “intergenerational trauma by disrupting family ties in Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and the Native Hawaiian Community.”
Haaland is a unique voice in the federal government to deliver these findings. She is the granddaughter of boarding school students and the great-granddaughter of a man sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, an institution whose founder coined the phrase “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
In her address today, she emphasized the need to not only conduct a historical reckoning with the nation’s troubled past, but to promote spiritual and emotional healing for those who have suffered trauma from the U.S. government’s assimilation campaign.
That will involve some delicate tasks in a nation where Native Americans still face rampant inequities and discrimination. Her department’s report states that it will serve as a basis “to plan future sitework, including protection of burial sites and potential repatriation or disinterment of remains of children,” to their home tribes.
But for now, specific burial site locations are not being released publicly, according to Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen and past tribal president of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), who led the investigation for the Interior Department. At today’s press conference, Newland described that decision as necessary due to “the very real threats of grave robbery, vandalism and other desecration.”
Many of the report’s findings aren’t new to historians and advocates. Some are attributed to a 1969 U.S. Senate investigation that declared the federal government’s Indian education efforts a historic failure. And nearly one hundred years ago, the Department of the Interior’s Meriam Report described horrific conditions in Indian boarding schools: The “dominant” form of education for Native children included “grossly inadequate” care.
Visits to schools in 13 states in the 20th century exposed tuberculosis and trachoma — the world’s leading cause of blindness — tearing through student bodies, with little medical care and basic sanitation and soap in pitiful supply. Conditions were overcrowded and the children were deprived of “light and air.” Students were forced to abandon their home languages, clothing and hair styles, and forced to work in violation of child labor laws in many parts of the country, with “almost no free time and little opportunity for recreation.”
The updated Interior Department report goes beyond those earlier reports in its historical scope, as well as its inventories and maps of facilities. The study team surveyed records from the nation’s massive archive sites, including 39,385 boxes containing roughly 98,462,500 sheets of paper held in a 1.3 million cubic-foot repurposed underground limestone mine in Lenexa, Kansas.
Now, for the first time, the U.S. government has produced an official list of 408 boarding schools across 431 sites in 37 states, or then-territories, including 28 schools in what are now Alaska and Hawaii. The schools were most heavily concentrated in the regions that became Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico. The first school opened in 1801. The last one opened not so long ago, in 1969, federal officials say, even as many Native American students had shifted to public day schools.
About half of the boarding schools were supported by the federal government, but run by Christian institutions that attempted to replace the cultural and religious practices of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Indigenous students.
Assistant Secretary Newland noted that dozens of former boarding schools are still in operation, though they are now run by or operated with tribes, and encourage the practice of Native American religions, cultures and customs.
In an interview shortly before the Interior report’s release, K. Tsianina Lomawaima — a leading historian of boarding schools and Native American education — emphasized the fraught task ahead in accounting for all that went on over centuries in Indian boarding schools. Lomawaima’s father, Curtis Thorpe Carr, was taken to the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma at age 9.
Lomawaima is a past president and co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and a retired Arizona State University professor of Mvskoke/Creek Nation descent. She said boarding schools “were designed to destroy community and family and language and religion,” but her work has found many students managed to thrive, particularly as some schools shifted from the militarized approach of the 19th century.
“The fact that Native people were strong and resilient and creative and made something better out of a place than it was set up to be is not an endorsement of the system,” she said, “it’s an endorsement of the people who survived.”
The grim specifics that surfaced today document why children were removed, not just how — and stress that land dispossession was a core motivation for the boarding school system’s creation.
The report quotes prominent figures such as Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe on this point, underscoring their roles in a sprawling assimilation-through-education campaign that coincided with “wave after wave of invasion by white settlers reinforced by military conquest.”
Jefferson’s scheme — documented in confidential messages he sent to Congress — was two-fold: Get Native people to abandon hunting and nomadic practices through assimilationist education, then persuade them to buy things on credit and fall into debt, so they would be forced to sell their land to the United States.
The violent extraction of children from their families and communities is described in meticulous detail in the Interior Department report, including tribal leaders’ forceful attempts to intervene. In 1886, for example, U.S. Indian Agent Fletcher J. Cowart described his tactics to overcome resistant tribal chiefs and kidnap Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache children for delivery to a boarding school — tactics that included surprise police raids.
“Some hurried their children off to the mountains or hid them away in camp,” he wrote, “and the Indian police had to chase and capture them like so many wild rabbits.”
Canada is far ahead of the U.S. in both its reckoning with the past, and its efforts to make some form of amends for its boarding schools.
After a 2006 class action legal settlement, Canada’s prime minister issued an apology. In 2015, a truth and reconciliation commission issued an exhaustive seven-volume report noting many schools had inadequate burial practices and often failed to notify families whose children died. More than $3 billion in compensation has been awarded to tens of thousands of former students and abuse victims.
Last summer, more specifics were revealed about burial sites on Canada’s former boarding schools, graves where more than 1,000 children were secretly interred.
Litigation on behalf of survivors has failed to advance in the United States due to statutes of limitations and other hurdles, according to legal experts. And to date, the U.S. government has issued only scant recognition of past harms.
Still, Indigenous rights advocates and activists have long battled for more recognition, documentation and amends-making. For those who survived, the harms of family separation, coerced education and violence and corrupt land dealings with white settlers persist. America’s Indigenous children are three times more likely to be taken into foster care than white children and child poverty rates have exceeded 40% for decades.
The Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Native American Rights Fund have helped organize boarding school survivors, descendants and scores of tribal nations and congressional leaders to support a truth, reconciliation and healing process. They have also challenged churches to come forward with details about their role in this painful history.
Professor Lomawaima, meanwhile, has urged “accountability — not pity” when taking stock of the past.
“If they are nothing but victims then they cannot help themselves and only the government or appointed entities can help them. And I think that’s a despicably self-serving message,” she said in an interview, noting the ubiquity of such messaging in the early 20th-century records she’s studied throughout her career. “It helps justify U.S. jurisdictions over Native lands, and over the lives of Native people.”
Farrah Mina contributed to this report.