Deb Haaland was confirmed as the first Native American Cabinet secretary in March. She isn’t wasting any time using her new post at the top of the Department of the Interior to advocate for indigenous people.
Haaland announced on Tuesday that the DOI is launching an initiative to address the “intergenerational impact” of the federal government’s history of forcing Native American children into boarding schools in order to assimilate them into white American culture. “At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects,” Haaland said. “We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life, and the lasting consequences of the schools.”
In 1819, Congress passed the Indian Civilization Act, which led to the establishment of boarding schools across the nation where Native American youth were sent and stripped of their culture. Children were typically prohibited from speaking their native language or communicating with their families, and were given clothes and haircuts common in white America. They were also routinely abused, and those who died were buried in unmarked graves. In announcing the initiative on Tuesday, Haaland noted that by by 1926 more than 80 percent of Native American children had been taken from their families and sent to these boarding schools, which were managed by the federal government or religious organizations.The boarding school program lasted into the 1960s.
The schools have come into focus following last month’s discovery of the remains of over 200 children on the grounds of a former a Native American boarding school in Canada. “Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose, because forced assimilation policies ended their lives too soon,” Haaland said of the remains discovered in Canada last month.
The new DOI initiative, dubbed the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, would investigate former boarding school facilities in the U.S., as well as possible burial sites near them, and attempt to determine the identity and tribal affiliation of the children enrolled in them. The initiative calls for DOI officials to file a final report by April 1st, 2022.
“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” Haaland added. “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”