Deb Haaland Announces 'Painful' Investigation Into Boarding Schools Set Up to Assimilate Native Americans

Haaland, the first Native American person to lead the Interior Department, said there will be a "long and difficult" probe

Deb Haaland
Deb Haaland. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday announced plans to investigate the history of Native American boarding schools that, decades ago, aimed to assimilate native children to white culture across the U.S.

The announcement comes weeks after investigators in Canada uncovered 215 children's bodies buried at an indigenous school in British Columbia, sparking outrage across the country and calls for similar recovery efforts to be taken up in the U.S.

The Interior Department says it will review "the troubled legacy" of such past boarding schools run by the government and religious organizations, which aimed to strip Native American culture and languages away from young indigenous children.

The Interior Department says its review - called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative - will focus on creating a comprehensive report on the schools, including identifying "cemeteries or potential burial sites" where indigenous children may have been buried.

The initiative "will serve as an investigation about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools," the department said.

Haaland, 60, is the first Native American to run the Interior Department, which oversees the country's natural resources and its relations with Native Americans.

She said Tuesday the department will undergo its review in order to "shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be."

"I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won't undo the heartbreak and loss we feel," she said. "But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we're all proud to embrace."

Deb Haaland
Deb Haaland. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty

Haaland made the announcement during a speech to the National Congress of American Indians 2021 Mid Year Conference in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, Haaland worte in an op-ed for The Washington Post that her great-grandfather was taken to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which was the first boarding school in the U.S. set up to assimilate young Native American children.

Such schools were run in the U.S. for more than 150 years, after the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 was signed into law, according to the Interior Department. In that time, the department estimates "hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities."

Haaland wrote in the Post that the founder of the Carlisle Indiana School, where her great-grandfather was taken, had operated under the phrase "kill the Indian, and save the man."

"The lasting and profound impacts of the federal government's boarding school system have never been appropriately addressed," Haaland wrote, noting that the schools were an "attempt to wipe out Native identity, language and culture."

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

Related Articles