And it is feared that there may be many more.
According to the Department of the Interior, child deaths in those boarding schools could number “in the thousands or tens of thousands,” as investigations proceed.
Among the first conclusions of the government report, the identification of 53 burials linked to these boarding schools stands out. Many of them are unidentified graves.
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The report does not directly analyze the causes of the registered deaths, but says that the assimilation system that was implemented was “traumatic and violent”.
The United States is carrying out this investigation as a result of the discovery in June of last year of hundreds of children’s graves in boarding schools for indigenous minors in Canada.
Between 1819 and 1969, the federal boarding school system for Native children in the United States was made up of 408 federal schools in 37 states (then territories), according to the report.
Many of those schools were located in the current states of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior of the Government of Joe Biden – and the first indigenous person to be part of the US Cabinet – presented the results of the report.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and the cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as four, are heartbreaking and undeniable,” he said.
Haaland’s paternal grandparents were sent to a boarding school for indigenous children for years.
“I come from ancestors who survived the horrors of assimilation policies carried out by the very department I now lead. Now, we can help in the effort to bring back the dark history of these institutions that persecuted our families for so long,” he said.
The US Secretary of the Interior promised that her department would continue to collect evidence of this forced assimilation.
Haaland fought back tears as he described how these boarding schools perpetuated poverty, mental health disorders, substance abuse, and premature deaths in the country’s indigenous communities,
“Each one of those children is a missing family member, a person who could not fulfill their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system,” he added.
Mistreatment and punishment
The full report from the US Department of the Interior is 106 pages long and compiles historical testimonies about the abuses committed in these centers.
In addition to separation from their families and forced internment, minors were forced to work and were victims of mistreatment.
“The federal boarding school system deployed systematic militarization and identity-altering methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian children,” the report says.
“Rules were often enforced through corporal punishment, such as solitary confinement, flogging, starvation, whipping, slapping, and handcuffing.”
“Sometimes the older indigenous children were forced to punish the younger ones.”
If they tried to escape, the punishment was worse. Furthermore, they were forbidden to speak their languages.
The US government is reviewing more than 98 million pages of records on the abuses that occurred in these boarding schools, which, however, were not always documented.
Deborah Parker, director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, recalled Wednesday the stories of a boarding school for indigenous children on the Tulalip reservation in Washington state, from where she is native
The school had a small cell and basement where at least one girl was routinely chained to a heater and beaten, the activist said.
The United States government directly ran some of those boarding schools, backed by national laws and policies to “civilize” Native Americans.
“Federal Indian boarding schools had a lasting impact on Indian peoples and communities across the United States,” says the report, signed by Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
“That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakdown of families and nations to the loss of languages, cultural and family practices.”
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites, as well as the federal government’s investment in schools and impacts on indigenous communities.