A report by the Department of the Interior identified more than 400 Native American boarding schools that assimilated and often abused Indigenous children. So far, the investigation has revealed more than 500 deaths.
For about one hundred and fifty years, indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to so-called Indian schools. Yesterday, Home Secretary Deb Haaland announced the first findings. From WXXI membership station in Rochester, New York, reports Noel Evans.
NOEL EVANCE, BAYLINE: The investigation is not complete, but we now know that by the end of the 1960s there were more than 400 such schools across the country.
CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: This is one of the original sins of this country. And the fact that the truth is finally coming out is very emotional and important.
EVANCE: This is Crystal Echo Hawk. She is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation and executive director of the Indian Illuminative Social Justice Organization.
ECHO HAWK: Our relatives went to those schools and faced severe abuse – you know, they were beaten, their mouths were washed with soap.
EVANCE: In a letter, Assistant Secretary of State for Indigenous Affairs Brian Newland highlighted some key findings – that the US was directly targeting Native American children for cultural assimilation and that this was central to a broader plan to remove Indigenous people from their lands. To this end, the school system used systematic, militarized methods and methods of identity change. Echo Hawk calls it disturbing.
ECHO HAWK: It wasn’t just a couple of bad apples in schools – it was politics, systematic politics.
EVANCE: Students were forbidden to speak their native language. The rules were enforced through corporal punishment, solitary confinement, and detention. Older students were sometimes forced to punish younger children. Abuses in all forms were rampant.
Echo Hawk’s grandfather was a survivor at Pawnee Boarding School in Oklahoma. She says he knew the peacock language until he knew it. Towards the end of his life he wrote down a few Peacock words that he still remembered. Echo Hawk still holds the piece of yellow paper he gave her.
ECHO HAWK: And it seemed that in the last, you know, decade or so in his life, he was really – it was as if he was trying to get back the things that were taken from him.
EVANCE: Not every student survived. About 50 burial sites have been found so far. More than 500 deaths have been reported, but the department expects the actual death toll could reach tens of thousands.
DANTE DESIDERIO: The challenge for the rest of America is if you attended elementary, middle, or high school, did you have a cemetery for children who died in high school?
EVANCE: This is Dante Desiderio. He is a citizen of the Sapony Nation and Director General of the National Congress of American Indians.
DESIDERIO: We need these children to return home to their communities, and we also need to recognize that experience. Our classmates died in schools and were buried back.
EVANCE: Desiderio says this should be the beginning of a broader investigation in government agencies to repair countless damages. And he wants people to recognize that it’s not in the past. Across the Indian country, survivors and their descendants continue to suffer the effects of policies that have been created to destroy their livelihoods.
DESIDERIO: But we don’t want to leave the people who went through this vulnerable, and just force the federal government to move on. We can’t do that.
EVANCE: The investigation will continue with an additional $ 7,000 from Congress.
For NPR News I am Noel Evans.
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