The US will search old federal boarding schools for the unmarked graves of Native American children, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said Tuesday, a project that will officially acknowledge the loss of life that has haunted tribal communities for more than 100 years.
The announcement came at the National Congress of American Indians 2021 Mid Year Conference, where Haaland said the Department of Interior will prepare a detailed report using historical government records to identify possible burial sites. Between 1869 and the 1960s, more than 350 federal boarding schools forced thousands of Native American children from their parents to "culturally assimilate" them, and schools continued to operate in the decades after the government handed off control. Some children never returned home.
"I know that this process will be long and difficult," Haaland announced Tuesday. "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."
The project was sparked after the remains of 215 children were found in March at a residential school in Canada, where a similar program removed children from their communities. An earlier Canadian government report on the residential schools described them as an act of "cultural genocide."
The children who were placed in the schools in the US and Canada were forcibly kept away from their parents, and abuse was rampant. The children's original language, culture, and customs were suppressed. In Canada, it's estimated that at least 4,000 and as many as 6,000 children died at school.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post on June 11, Haaland wrote that news of the recent discovery of remains of the 215 Indigenous children in Canada made her "sick to [her] stomach" and noted that deaths "were not limited to that side of the border."
Haaland said that her own grandparents were taken from their parents as young children.
"They were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13," she wrote. "Many children like them never made it back home."
Haaland, a former US representative from New Mexico, is also the first Native American to head the Department of Interior and oversees federal lands and resources. She is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna.
In an internal memo sent out at the Department of Interior, Haaland noted that the federal government oversaw boarding schools from 1819 through the 1960s under the Indian Civilization Act.
The law separated families of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian descent.
"Many students endured routine injury and abuse," the memo reads. "Some perished and were interred in unmarked graves. Survivors of the traumas of boarding school policies carried their memories into adulthood as they became the aunts and uncles, parents, and grandparents to subsequent generations."
The Department of Interior ran the boarding schools for more than a century, the memo states, and therefore is "uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the histories of these institutions."
"We must shed light on what happened at federal Boarding Schools," Bryan Newland, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said in a statement. "As we move forward in this work, we will engage in Tribal consultation on how best to use this information, to protect burial sites, and respect families and communities."
The project will include identifying records within the department documenting US boarding schools between 1819 to 1969, according to the memo. The department will also reach out to tribal nations, as well as Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian organizations, to help process and protect any burial sites that are identified.
The review will include all records of enrollment, history, maps, and statistics of the schools, but the department noted that efforts should pay particular attention to any record that could point to cemeteries or any other burial site.
A detailed report is expected to be completed by April 2, 2022.