Energy & Environment

Hundreds of Native American children died in boarding schools over 50 years, Interior Department finds

Hundreds of Native American children died after being forced into government boarding schools over a 50-year period, the Interior Department said Wednesday in its first investigative report on the program. 

The investigation found a total of 408 schools were operated by the federal government between 1819 and 1869, as well as another 89 that received no federal funding.

The department thus far identified more than 500 deaths across 19 schools, according to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, but the department expects to identify more. The report identified marked and unmarked burial sites at 53 schools, which are also expected to increase as the analysis continues. 

At the schools, children were forced to cut their hair and speak only English rather than their native languages, and were subjected to what Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland called “militarized and identity alteration methodology.”

Haaland’s grandfather was a survivor of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose founder, Richard Henry Pratt, described the institution’s mission as “kill the Indian, save the man.” 

The investigation also found that the schools were frequently focused on vocational skills and manual labor rather than academic work, leaving graduates with limited skills and employment prospects.

It further determined that about half of boarding schools may have enlisted the aid or support from religious institutions, with the federal government in some cases paying religious organizations per capita for Native American students. 

The investigation found schools existed in 37 states and 11 then-territories, with the greatest number, 37, in Oklahoma. The department recommended a number of further steps to take in the investigation, including producing a detailed list of burial sites at boarding schools as well as a rough estimate of how much federal financial support they received. 

“The fact that I’m standing here today as the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary is testament to the strength and determination of Native people. I am here because my ancestors persevered. I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother and my mother,” Haaland said at a press conference Wednesday. “And the work we will do with the federal Indian boarding school initiative will have a transformational impact on the generations who follow. 

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