On May 11, the Department of the Interior released the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland first announced the creation of the Initiative last June, with a primary goal of investigating the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools. The report was assembled with the input of tribal governments, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian communities.
Here’s what the investigation found:
The Scope of Indian Boarding Schools
Between 1819 and 1969, there were 408 schools across 37 states, and over 1,000 other institutions that involved the education of Native children, including Indian day schools, orphanages, and asylums. These schools aimed to “assimilate” Native children through tactics such as renaming children with English names, cutting their hair, prohibiting the use of Native languages and religions, extensive military drills, and manual labor. Abuse ran rampant, including the withholding of food, solitary confinement, and physical punishment.
The investigation also found 53 burial sites at boarding school locations. It’s expected that more will be identified as the Interior Department continues their investigation.
Connecting Boarding Schools to Broader Practices of White Supremacy
The consequences of separating young children from their families and tribal homes, a curriculum of child labor, and punishments akin to those inflicted on prisoners of war are deeply felt within Indigenous communities to this day.
Survivors left these institutions abused, in poor health, and without the language and cultural knowledge to connect with the homes they returned to.
Further, beneath the cruel assimilation policy lies the true purpose of this government strategy: an effort to seize Native land. Federal records confirm that the creation of the federal Indian boarding school system coincided with land dispossession. An assimilation policy targeted at Native children was thought to be easier and less costly than war in separating tribes from their land. The schools would discourage tribal land and food practices and encourage western agricultural practices that require less land.
Another tactic was to encourage tribes to purchase goods on credit to support the western agricultural lifestyle. Thus, tribes would fall into debt and have no option but to cede lands to the U.S. for payment—those funds were then mostly used to fund the boarding school system.
The Need for Further Action
The federal government has a treaty and trust responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty and enhance tribal self-determination. This report is another reminder that this responsibility is not fulfilled.
This new report is a vital and long-awaited step. But it’s abundantly clear that more action is needed—from lawmakers and from faith communities complicit in this dark chapter of American history.
While the Interior Department continues its investigation, Congress must act by establishing the first formal commission in U.S. history to address the attempted termination of Indigenous languages and cultures via assimilation practices during the federal boarding school era.
On May 12, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. held a hearing on the bipartisan Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act (S. 2907/H.R. 5444). “This legislation builds on the important work being done at [Interior], said Rep. Sharice Davids (KS-03). “This bill does not duplicate the efforts of [Interior], but rather expands and continues to acknowledge that legacy with the help of survivors, tribal leaders, policy experts and communities that can guide this process.”
This new report is a vital and long-awaited step. But it’s abundantly clear that more action is needed—from lawmakers and from faith communities complicit in this dark chapter of American history. We continue our calls to swiftly pass the truth and healing bill, and we urge Quakers and the faith community at large to share records and accounts of their administration of these schools.