The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Investigation finds burial sites at 53 federal Indian boarding schools

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland commissioned the report on the deaths at residential Indian schools. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
5 min

The Department of the Interior this week said it estimated “thousands or tens of thousands” of Native American, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian children had died in the custody of federal Indian boarding schools, casualties of an assimilation policy that separated children from their families to strip them of their language and culture.

The revelation was part of a report that attempts to catalogue the scale of the system and the abuses that occurred inside schools intended to reeducate the children. Officials identified 53 schools that had marked or unmarked burial sites containing the remains of children who died at schools often far from home. The agency documented 500 deaths in 19 of the schools, the report said. But the investigation is far from over, as officials said they expect the number of deaths to rise to “thousands or tens of thousands,” and to find many more burial sites.

The children died in the custody of residential schools owned or supported by the federal government that operated between 1819 and 1969 as part of a horrific campaign to erase their Native roots and exploit their labor, all under the guise of educating them, according to the report. It was a deliberate effort, articulated in federal policy, to assimilate and westernize Native communities to make it easier to take their land, the report said.

“From the earliest days of the Republic, the United States’ official objective — based on Federal and other records — was to sever the cultural and economic connection between Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and their territories,” the report said. “The assimilation of Indian children through the Federal Indian boarding school system was intentional and part of that broader goal.”

The report comes after the First Nations of Canada, seeking to understand what happened to generations of its youth, discovered several burial sites connected to residential schools containing the remains of hundreds of children, some as young as 3.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican, commissioned the report last year after the First Nations found the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said her own grandparents were taken to residential schools. Some of the schools were run by the Department of the Interior, the very agency that Haaland now leads.

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“The lasting and profound impacts of the federal government’s boarding school system have never been appropriately addressed,” Haaland wrote. “This attempt to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continues to manifest itself in the disparities our communities face.”

Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a social and racial justice organization, said the report marks an important turning point for the Interior Department. Her grandfather attended a school where he was beaten and had his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Pawnee, a language that is now considered endangered.

“This is one of the most important and devastating historical events on the level that changed the trajectory of Native peoples,” she said.

The report details includes how the United States, through official laws and policies, separated children from their families as a way to weaken communities and make it easier for the government to take their lands. According to a congressional report published in 1969 and cited in the Interior Department findings, the schools “were designed to separate a child from his reservation and family, strip him of his tribal lore and mores, force the complete abandonment of his native language, and prepare him for never again returning to his people.”

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At the schools, children were sometimes crowded three to a bed in deteriorating facilities. Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, disease, malnourishment, overcrowding, and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented,” according to the report published this week.

The children were also forced to do manual labor, sawing lumber, making shingles, digging wells and irrigation ditches and sewing clothing. In 1928, an Interior Department report found that, at the Leupp Boarding and Day School in Arizona, it was observed that the “institutional work” had “to be done, in part at least, by very small children, children, moreover, who, according to competent medical opinion, are malnourished.”

While the new Interior Department report is historical, it notes the lasting impacts of the schools on Native Americans and their communities today. Studies of adults who attended the schools as children have found they suffer from much higher rates of physical health problems, a trend that is passed on to their children, who also are less healthy than the general population.

In its recommendations, the agency called for continued investigation into the federal Indian boarding school system, including identifying and interviewing surviving former students of the schools and providing them with mental health care. It also called for facilitating the transfer of remains so they can receive proper burials and memorializing the children with a monument.

Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.