Interior Department to begin 'painful' review of Indigenous boarding schools

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Deb Haaland.
Deb Haaland. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has directed her department to investigate Indian boarding schools and "shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be."

Hundreds of thousands of children were forced to attend these schools in order to assimilate, and in a memo, Haaland said the Interior Department will "address the inter-generational impact" of these institutions. The investigation will also "uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences," she wrote, and include a report detailing cemeteries and possible burial sites of students.

"I know that this process will be long and difficult," Haaland said. "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 boarding schools were first established in 1819 as part of the Indian Civilization Act, and students were told to completely give up their identities, unable to use their tribal languages and given new clothes and names. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says that by 1926, more than 80 percent of Indigenous school-age children were at government-run or religious boarding schools.

Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month that she is "a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture, and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home." Some people aren't aware of what happened at these boarding schools, Haaland said, and "the first step to justice is acknowledging these painful truths and gaining a full understanding of their impacts so we can unravel the threads of trauma and injustice that linger."

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