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Opinion. The long-awaited Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report was released by the U.S. Department of the Interior at noon on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. 

A short while later, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) arrived in the Interior’s board room for a press conference on the report. Haaland wore traditional attire for this solemn event, as did Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community), who wore a green ribbon shirt. Joining them were Deborah Parker (Tulalip/Yaqui), chief executive officer of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) and James LaBelle, an Alaska Native survivor of the federal government’s Indian boarding school system.   

They were all there to provide an overview of the 106-page report, which for the first time in history contain an admission of physical, emotional, and sexual abuses suffered by Native American children at Indian boarding schools under a policy set forth by the United States government. 

As she opened the press conference, Haaland’s voice cracked with emotion. When it was Newland’s turn to speak, he wept and paused to gather himself. 

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by forced family separation and cultural eradication, which were inflicted upon generations of children, as young as four years old, are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Haaland, whose grandparents attended Indian boarding schools when they were children.

The topic of Indian boarding schools is very emotional because the scars it caused are deep within the fabric of tribal communities across Indian Country. 

Assistant Secretary Newland put the history of Indian boarding schools into perspective: “There's not a single American Indian, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian in this country whose life hasn't been affected by these schools. That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families, from the breakup of families and tribal nations, to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives. We haven't begun to explain the scope of this policy area until now.” 

The report details that the federal government operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states between the years 1819 and 1969. Additionally, the report identified 53 marked and unmarked burial sites connected to the schools, though the Department expects to find the number of children buried at boarding schools across the nation to be in the “thousands or tens of thousands,” as the investigation continues. 

Interior’s report does not specify the location of the graves because, as Newland said, the Interior Department will not disclose them to “protect against very real threats of grave robbing, vandalism, and other desecration.”

Buried in the report is the federal government’s admission that at least 500 graves have been identified at the 53 burial sites. The fact that the U.S. government admits to the deaths of 500 Native children is in itself historic, but experts who have worked on the Indian boarding school issue over the years agree that the number is far too low. The passage of time and sloppy record-keeping—the result of either sinister intent or simple ineptitude—has made the process to determine the number of children lost difficult.

But no one should doubt the veracity of the assessment that there may be thousands or tens of thousands more. In June 2021, soon after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian residential school in British Columbia, the former director of Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways told attendees at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. that there are 227 remains on the grounds of closed Indian boarding school in nearby Mt. Pleasant. But the federal government, according to Shannon Martin (Gun Lake Tribe), would only “own up to five.”

That will likely change in the coming months and years with the release of the Federal Indian Boarding School Investigative Report and new bi-partisan legislation to create and fund a commission to study Indian boarding schools.  

The sheer volume of the work that went into the report, which identifies 98.4 million sheets of paper on Indian boarding schools, is enormous. The report calls for the work of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative that will seek to find all of the graves of the children who died while under the custody of the federal government.

The work must continue, NABS executive Parker said in remarks that were both tearful and fierce.  

“Our children deserve to be found,” Parker said. “Our children deserve to be brought home. We are here for their justice and we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children. The time is now.” 

She is right.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" 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].