Why Congress must investigate crimes and abuses at Indian boarding schools

Why Congress must investigate crimes and abuses at Indian boarding schools
© Getty Images

In recent weeks, commemorations honored the Indigenous children who died at Indian boarding schools throughout the United States and Canada during the 19th and 20th centuries. Sadly, most Americans are unaware that more than 350 federal Indian boarding schools operated across 30 states from 1869 through 1978, and that hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their tribal communities and forced to attend government and church-run boarding schools. The purpose of the government-sponsored family separations was to force the cultural assimilation of Native children into U.S. society and eliminate connections to Indigenous languages and culture.  

For more than 100 years, these institutions tried to replace Native American values, languages and ways of life with Christianity, Western traditions and the English language. At its peak, an estimated 83 percent of American Indian children were attending these boarding schools, where some endured physical and sexual abuse in addition to hard labor and disease. Many children never returned to tribal communities and their families still do not know what happened to them. 

Legislation in Congress to establish a committee to acknowledge and investigate the federal government’s prior Indian boarding school policies is a step in the right direction. We applaud Rep. Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsAbortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Vulnerable House Dems push drug pricing plan Vulnerable House Democrats warn not to drop drug pricing from package MORE (D-Kan.), Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse passes giant social policy and climate measure Congress needs to act on the social determinants of health Why Congress must investigate crimes and abuses at Indian boarding schools MORE (R-Okla.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Mass.) for reintroducing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, which was first introduced in 2020 by Secretary of the Interior Deb HaalandDeb HaalandInterior recommends imposing higher costs for public lands drilling Overnight Energy & Environment — White House announces new climate office Biden administration approves second offshore wind project off Rhode Island MORE, then a U.S. House member from New Mexico.


If signed into law, the bill would create a formal commission to investigate and acknowledge the crimes and abuses of the federal government’s Indian boarding schools during the 1800s and 1900s. 

States are also backing this action. One of us this year worked with a broad bipartisan majority of California legislators urging support for the federal investigation and is laying the groundwork for California’s cooperation with the inquiry into state boarding schools. 

Additionally, the new commission would create recommended guidelines for Congress to assist tribal communities with the devastating effects of trauma inherited from prior generations’ experiences at the boarding schools. 

We urge Democrats, Republicans and independents to come together to pass this consequential bill and send it to President BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE for his prompt signature into law. 

We must also learn the full truth of what happened at Indian boarding schools, given the devastating impact they had on destroying Native American families and traditions. It is imperative that we fully understand the damage that was done to Indian Country and the broader social fabric by removing Native American children and placing them in these institutions. Learning these hard truths will be vital for helping the affected tribal nations heal from this tragic episode in American history. 

A failure to teach our youth about these injustices will ensure that America’s non-Native peoples will fail to understand the historical trauma suffered by tribes and the accompanying high rates of substance abuse, addiction and suicide. These blind spots can hinder the ability of our country’s future voters and their elected representatives to understand the plight of Native nations, likely prolonging ineffective and harmful federal Indian policy coming out of Washington. 

Unless we are grounded with an awareness of how mistreatment of Native Americans over the centuries is linked to their current poor outcomes in health, economic opportunity and education, how can we expect our fellow citizens to elect members of Congress who will take seriously the federal government’s trust responsibility toward Indian Country? 

Efforts to teach Native American history must begin in our schools. Schools need to provide a more thorough accounting of tribal sovereignty — history, as well as Native Americans’ numerous contributions to American society. 

Undergraduate programs should include a Native American history course as a general education requirement. Law schools ought to institute a class on federal Indian policy as a prerequisite for a law degree. Such measures would build critical-thinking skills steeped in history and equip students with the tools to avoid repeating past injustices.   

Making headway in this endeavor will involve a long-term, sustained effort over the course of generations. Our moral obligation is to provide America’s next generation with a solid foundation of all chapters of Native American history — including the Indian boarding schools tragedy. In doing so, we will cultivate more thoughtful and empathetic voters on the issues facing tribal nations, their aspirations and our collective future. 

James C. Ramos, an assemblyman from Southern California, is the first Native American lawmaker elected as a state representative in the state’s 171-year history.

Ted Gover, Ph.D., is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University. Follow him on Twitter @TedGover.