Following a historic accounting of the nation’s Indian boarding schools and their brutal legacy earlier this year, a bill that would establish a formal Truth and Healing Commission was given preliminary approval by a House committee on June 15.
Survivors of boarding schools and their family members continue to feel the effects of Indigenous family separation, forced education and corrupt land settlements. The House bill establishes the commission, which would investigate and document attempted cultural termination and the ongoing effects of the resulting trauma.
The commission would also be responsible for holding public hearings for Indigenous communities to discuss “the impacts of the physical, psychological, and spiritual violence of Indian boarding schools” and for preserving unmarked graves and surrounding land.
The first boarding school opened in 1801, the most recent in 1969. According to the Department of the Interior, boarding schools and “the policies that created, funded, and fueled their existence,” were “designed to assimilate” American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians into non-Indigenous cultures, often through abusive tactics.
In May the Interior Department released the landmark investigation, producing a comprehensive list of 408 boarding schools that documented the “harm and violence” of this form of forced assimilation. Schools were most heavily concentrated in Oklahoma with 76 schools, New Mexico with 43 and Arizona with 47 schools. The Interior also identified at least 53 marked and unmarked student burial sites, confirming 500 child deaths in 19 schools.
The bill would establish both a Survivors Subcommittee and the Truth and Healing Commission’s Advisory Committee to provide the 10-member panel with recommendations from boarding school alumni, teachers and current boarding school students. Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota,) an adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and the founding director of First Nations Repatriation Institute, told The Imprint this would allow the commission “to fully express and understand the impacts of the federal policy of Indian child removal.”
The advisory committee would also comprise tribal members from various cultures and geographies, mental health experts and representatives from numerous national Indigenous organizations.
The Interior’s report referenced the Child Removal Survey finding that 75% of boarding school survivors who completed the survey had attempted suicide. Nearly half of respondents reported being diagnosed with a mental health condition after their attendance.
The Truth and Healing bill, sponsored by Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, has 61 co-sponsors, six of whom are Republican.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee are wary of the legislation, citing both the funding that will be required to operate the commission, and how the commission will have “unchecked” subpoena power to force appearances from witnesses.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, (D-N.M.) said that some organizations that operated boarding schools, like churches, are “unwilling to release those records,” which underscores the need for the commission’s subpoena power.
The Interior noted a study by the Centers for Disease Control showing “traumatic childhood experiences” like forced removals to non-Native homes and boarding schools, leads “to a higher likelihood of negative health outcomes, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and early deaths” when compared nationally.
“What we should truly listen to is all those voices that we heard of the survivors and the importance of reviewing and coming to terms with the atrocities that we committed,” Leger Fernandez testified Wednesday.
Looking ahead, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, told Cronkite News he expects the bill to pass after being presented to the full House sometime in July, after which “it’s going to be very difficult for the Senate to ignore.” The Senate has drawn up its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but hasn’t yet held a hearing on its legislation.
Canada has established a similar commission after their investigative boarding schools report released in 2015. Following that in May 2021, Canada announced the discovery of 215 unmarked burial sites; a month later, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the U.S. Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative’s investigation, which for the first time provided an exhaustive inventory of the federally operated boarding schools.