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A report issued in May by the U.S. Department of Interior examining the Federal Indian boarding school system and its legacy makes for difficult if necessary reading. It marks the first effort to chronicle the operations of these institutions and honestly confront their long-term effects on the Native American people.
That will have particular resonance in Virginia, home to seven federally recognized tribes. While the commonwealth has made progress in recent years to protect Native landmarks and even return land to Native peoples, efforts on the federal level can, and should, go farther.
This week in Canada, Pope Francis delivered a message of contrition in a visit to Maskwacis, Alberta, apologizing for cooperation of Catholic Church members with that country’s Indigenous residential schools, a system of 139 institutions which operated between the 1870s and the 1990s.
A 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found “at least 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students passed through the system,” which was funded by the government and run by Christian churches. The pope on Monday acknowledged the system had “catastrophic” effects on the Native people.
The commission’s report outlined the cultural destruction and lasting harm inflicted by policies of child separation and forced assimilation. Members heard testimony from thousands of survivors and uncovered evidence of widespread abuse and death at the boarding schools.
The discovery of thousands of unmarked graves last year sparked national discussion on the report’s most pressing question: “Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?”
A similar question could be posed in the United States, but this country still need to do the difficult work of introspection. The federal government operated a system similar to Canada’s for two centuries, but has yet to complete a thorough investigation of those institutions and their legacy.
That began to change last year when Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to begin that arduous process. Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet.
Volume 1 of that report was issued in May. Investigators found that from 1819 to 1969, 408 federal schools operated in 37 states or then territories, including four in North Carolina and one in Virginia: the Butler School for Negro Children, which was a precursor to Hampton University.
Marked or unmarked burial sites were identified at approximately 53 different schools across the system. A future volume of the report will detail those findings, but an announcement accompanying the report states, ominously, “As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase.”
Interior officials are now in phase two of its investigation, traveling the country in a year-long effort to collect testimony from survivors — to hear the stories of the school from those who lived there and suffered the harm of federal policies intended to separate Native Americans from their culture and history.
This will not be easy for survivors to do, nor will it be easy for Americans to hear. The United States’ treatment of Native people has long been a stain on the country’s history and this investigation will dive deep into some dark corners of our past.
Here in Virginia, where the first European settlers had an uneasy relationship with the native Powhatan but survived the first winters only through their hospitality and help, this effort bears close attention. The commonwealth should be willing to assist however it can.
It is also important that we, as a nation, confront that legacy, honestly and with the sensitivity it demands. To do otherwise is to prolong the pain and suffering of the Native people, who deserved far more dignity and respect than they have received.
The United States is not perfect but it can demonstrate compassion through its willingness to admit mistakes, apologize for harm and try to foster reconciliation with those affected. All Americans should hope this federal initiative helps achieve that.