WASHINGTON — The discovery of 215 remains of school children at the Kamloops Industrial Residential School in Canada late last month has prompted the U.S. Department of the Interior to establish a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

Interior Sec. Deb Haaland made the announcement during her appearance at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) 2021 Mid Year Conference on Tuesday afternoon.

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The initiative will include an investigation to identify past boarding schools, the location of known and possible burial sites, and the identities and tribal affiliations of the children who were taken there.

Indian Country was quick to embrace the idea.

NCAI President Fawn Sharp released the following statement on Tuesday evening:

“The National Congress of American Indians commends the Department of Interior for taking the essential first step of providing an official account of the atrocities that Native children experienced during the boarding school era. By documenting who, what, when and where these egregious abuses occurred, Native families may not be able to fully heal, but they may be able to begin to reconcile with the past. Many mothers, fathers, siblings, and children of boarding school victims and survivors have walked on without ever knowing the full extent of what happened to their loved ones. But knowledge is power. By learning the truth, we can finally begin reconciling the past and healing for the future.”

Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, says the initiative is the first step towards telling the truth about the centuries of forced assimilation and uncovering the lasting and intergenerational impact on Native families.

“A recurring theme of historical U.S. government policies is efforts to assimilate and intentionally separate Native children from their families, identities, languages, cultural practices, and spirituality. In the form of boarding schools and public and private child welfare systems, Native children were systematically removed from their families,” Kastelic said.

The organization’s president also weighed in on the initiative.

“While difficult, long-term, and painful work, it is a starting place,” Gil Vigil, president of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said. “The Department of the Interior was responsible for the operation of Indian boarding schools for over a century. Compiling and making public data about the sites of boarding schools, known and suspected burial sites, and identified remains and tribal affiliations of children is a first step. In consultation with tribal governments, the Department of Interior can begin the process of healing the great open wound of our missing relatives.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez the initiative is a means to educate others about the atrocities Native people have experienced. He is hopeful uncovering the painful truths about Indian boarding schools will lead to a better understanding in today’s society so that we can work together to heal.

“As Navajo people, we all have parents, grandparents, and other elders who were subjected to boarding schools and that has contributed to many of the modern-day monsters in our society such as suicide, substance abuse and addiction, violence in our homes and communities, the physical and mental health of our people, and much more. Our people were forcefully removed from their homes and families, placed into the boarding school system, and stripped of their identity as Navajo people to assimilate them. Some were abused physically, mentally, and sexually, and sadly, many had their lives taken. This troubling history deserves more attention.” President Nez said.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will result in a written report on the investigation to Secretary Haaland in just over nine months from now by April 1, 2022.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected]