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Opinion Deb Haaland: My grandparents were stolen from their families as children. We must learn about this history.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks at the White House on April 23. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Deb Haaland, the U.S. interior secretary, is the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

Deb Haaland discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

As I read stories about an unmarked grave in Canada where the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found last month, I was sick to my stomach. But the deaths of Indigenous children at the hands of government were not limited to that side of the border. Many Americans may be alarmed to learn that the United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people. It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.

I am a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home.

Over nearly 100 years, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into scores of boarding schools run by religious institutions and the U.S. government. Some studies suggest that by 1926, nearly 83 percent of Native American school-age children were in the system. Many children were doused with DDT upon arrival, and as their coerced re-education got underway, they endured physical abuse for speaking their tribal languages or practicing traditions that didn’t fit into what the government believed was the American ideal.

My great-grandfather was taken to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Its founder coined the phrase “kill the Indian, and save the man,” which genuinely reflects the influences that framed these policies at the time.

My family’s story is not unlike that of many other Native American families in this country. We have a generation of lost or injured children who are now the lost or injured aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents of those who live today. I once spent time with my grandmother recording our history for a writing assignment in college. It was the first time I heard her speak candidly about how hard it was — about how a priest gathered the children from the village and put them on a train, and how she missed her family. She spoke of the loneliness she endured. We wept together. It was an exercise in healing for her and a profound lesson for me about the resilience of our people, and even more about how important it is to reclaim what those schools tried to take from our people.

The lasting and profound impacts of the federal government’s boarding school system have never been appropriately addressed. This attempt to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continues to manifest itself in the disparities our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and additional undocumented physiological and psychological impacts.

Many of the boarding schools were maintained by the Interior Department, which I now lead. I believe that I — and the Biden-Harris administration — have an important responsibility to bring this trauma to light.

Our children, parents and grandparents deserve a federal government that works to promote our tribal languages, culture and mental health. Many Native children want to learn their tribe’s language, songs and ceremonies. Many Native families want the children who were lost to come home, regardless of how long ago they were stolen.

The obligation to correct and heal those unspeakable wrongs extends to today and starts with investments such as those President Biden has made to strengthen tribal sovereignty through the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the budget for fiscal 2022.

Our administration has set out to forge a new path to engage with tribal communities and to live up to its trust and treaty responsibilities. But that obligation also requires that all Americans listen and learn, that we allow federal boarding school survivors and their families an opportunity to be heard, and that we engage in meaningful tribal consultation to seek justice. Though it is uncomfortable to learn that the country you love is capable of committing such acts, the first step to justice is acknowledging these painful truths and gaining a full understanding of their impacts so that we can unravel the threads of trauma and injustice that linger. We have a long road of healing ahead of us, but together with tribal nations, I am sure that we can work together for a future that we will all be proud to embrace.

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