Deb Haaland to Investigate Burial Sites of Indigenous Students at Boarding Schools

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative a month after the undocumented remains of Indigenous children were found under a former Canadian residential school.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 22, 2021, 9:19pm
deb haaland
On Tuesday, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate the assimilative system's legacy. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced Tuesday that her department is launching an investigation into the country’s boarding school system that forcibly assimilated Indigenous students, with a special focus on burial sites of children who attended the schools.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative comes about a month after the undocumented remains of Indigenous children, some as young as 3, were found under a former Catholic-run residential school in Canada. Three additional burial sites in Canada have already been confirmed.

Advertisement

Indigenous folks have been expecting a similar reckoning to unfold in the U.S., which operated at least 367 of its own boarding schools that were often as brutal as Canada’s residential school system.

“The U.S. Indian boarding school era was an integral part of a centuries-long systematic, genocidal campaign by the United States government to erase Native peoples, cultures, and civilizations,” the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) said in a statement earlier this month following the news of the gravesites in Canada.

But the U.S. has yet to investigate its boarding school legacy—something Haaland’s announcement sets out to do.

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.

Haaland has asked the department to put together a report that lists all available boarding school records, including information related to likely burial sites. 

The Interior Department will also formally consult tribal nations to better determine how to protect individual burial sites. 

“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel,” Haaland said. “But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Advertisement

The Interior Department was responsible for operating boarding schools, which ran from the 1860s to the late 1970s. “We are therefore uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long,” said Haaland, the first ever Indigenous woman to hold a post as a cabinet secretary. 

Last fall, Haaland sponsored a bill that would have introduced a truth and healing commission akin to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the ongoing legacy of the residential school system and then published 94 calls to action to address colonialism in the country. In Canada, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students were forced to attend residential school, where they faced sweeping physical and sexual abuses, often as punishment for expressing their cultures. Thousands of children were killed.

It’s not yet known how many Indigenous students attended U.S. boarding schools, and how many were killed. 

“The U.S. has never acknowledged its assimilative boarding school policies and refused to provide an accounting of the children that went missing and deaths that occurred at Indian boarding schools in this country,” said the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). 

This month, the U.S. Army announced it is planning to return to tribal nations the remains of 10 Indigenous children who died more than 100 years ago while attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania. The school was open from 1879 to 1918. 

It’s the fourth time remains of students who attended Carlisle are being returned to their home communities. 

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.