How many Native American children died at Arizona boarding schools? It's time to find out

Schooling is an exciting time for parents and students alike. As a college student myself at Grand Canyon University, I have found myself feeling thrilled for the rest of the year ahead, ready to tackle whatever it may hold.

However, that excitement that I and so many others associate with school is a privilege that hasn’t been shared equally. For thousands of Indigenous children in Arizona and beyond, school didn’t mean learning and growth – it meant pain and suffering.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, churches worked with the U.S. government to create hundreds of boarding schools for Native American children. During this time, Native children were coerced or forcibly removed from their families and communities. They were taken to institutions that were focused on dismantling their culture and family unit in the name of “assimilation” into white American culture.

Feds admit that the government targeted children

A report by the Interior Department this year reveals the cruelty inflicted on students. The report was ordered by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland − the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary − in June 2021, shortly after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a boarding school in Canada.

As Secretary Haaland wrote then, this tragic development in Canada “should prompt us to reflect on past Federal policies to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples in the United States.” Further, while the harms of the boarding school era are well-known to Indigenous communities, there had never been federal documentation of these horrors.

The report aimed to examine the scope of the Indian boarding school system with a specific focus on the locations, burial sites and possible identification of children. It was also notable because for the first time, the federal government acknowledged “that the United States directly targeted American Natives, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiian children in pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation.”

As the report noted, children were punished for speaking their native language, wearing traditional clothing and even wearing their hair in their traditional way. Thousands of children died and suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of these government-sanctioned boarding schools.

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” were the words of Richard Henry Pratt, a prominent educator at Native boarding schools in the late 1800s. This was the ideology at the foundation of these institutions.

Arizona had a large number of boarding schools

Exterior of the Phoenix Indian School Memorial Hall, Tuesday, February 19, 2019.
Exterior of the Phoenix Indian School Memorial Hall, Tuesday, February 19, 2019.

According to the Interior report, Arizona held the second largest number of boarding schools in the nation, with 47 schools throughout our state. You can see evidence of this horrible legacy today – Indian School Road was named as such because it led to a Native boarding school right in central Phoenix.

Arizonans should care about this dark chapter in our history − and so should the U.S. government, which has a treaty and trust responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty and enhance tribal self-determination. Nothing can undo the intergenerational trauma, but the government must address this wrongdoing and begin a healing process.

That is where the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act (House Resolution 5444 and Senate Bill 2907) comes in. The legislation would be the first formal commission in U.S. history to investigate the boarding school era. It would chart a five-year investigation and take testimonies from survivors and their descendants.

Crucially, it would also create recommendations for future reconciliation, as guided by a Truth and Healing Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from tribal organizations and tribal nations, experts and survivors.To this day, there is no official account of how many children went missing or died at these schools, no exploration of the long-term impacts on children and families, and no clear reporting on how many children actually attended the boarding schools.

Sinema, others should support full investigation

November is Native Heritage Month. To mark this occasion, I urge Arizona’s lawmakers to put themselves in the shoes of parents who had their children ripped from their homes. I am calling on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, David Schweikert and Debbie Lesko to co-sponsor the bill and to help grow its support.

In doing so, they would follow in the footsteps of Sen. Mark Kelly and Reps. Raul Grijalva, Ruben Gallego, Greg Stanton, Ann Kirkpatrick and Tom O’Halleran, who already co-sponsored this bill. This support is vital to ensuring the bill passes, and I urge them to express their public support and urge their colleagues to back this bill.

Our legislators owe this to our 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona, and to the hundreds of tribes across the country. It’s long overdue for Congress to shine some truth on this era of systemic violence and cultural destruction, and begin charting a new path towards healing and transparency.

Karime Rodriguez attends Grand Canyon University and is an organizer and advocate with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which advocates for legislation to promote peace, justice and environmental stewardship. Reach her at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona must confront the horror of its boarding school past