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U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Addresses Legacy Of Indigenous Boarding Schools

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is launching a new initiative that will investigate the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

Under the initiative, Haaland said the department will compile and analyze existing records and documents on the boarding school program to determine the full scope of its reach and its lasting consequences on Indigenous families and communities. The investigation will also identify past school facilities and sites, the location of known and possible burial sites at or near school facilities and the identities and tribal affiliations of former students. 

“I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undue the heartbreak and the loss that so many of us feel, but only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we are all proud to embrace,” said Haaland, a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. 

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, there were 50 schools in Arizona. Nationwide, 73 of the schools remain open and 15 continue to board students, including three in Arizona.

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One of the federal boarding schools was the Phoenix Indian Industrial School now located at Steele Indian School Park. Rosalie Talahongva, a curator for the school’s visitor center and member of Hopi tribe, said tens of thousands of children came to the school when it operated from 1891 to 1990. These children came from tribes within the state and nationwide, she added. 

“Early on it was definitely not a good experience. You’re talking about 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds living here for 10-12 years at a time,” said Talahongva. “How great can that be? You know, you’re no longer with your family unit and you don’t know exactly how you are supposed to fit in once you get back.”

Talahongva was also a past student at the school. The school eventually allowed students to speak their native language and keep their long hair, she said. And some good things did come out of the school, she said, such as improved relationships between tribes. 

While the history of the Phoenix Indian School and other similar facilities may be painful, Talahongva thinks Haaland’s initiative will help bring this history to the forefront. 

The recent discovery of children's remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in that legacy both in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their native languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

After reading about the unmarked graves in Canada, Haaland recounted her own family's story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.

Past efforts by the federal government to “eradicate our culture and erase us as a people” is a history that needs to be acknowledged, she wrote.

Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on U.S. boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.

Experts say removing children from their families and homes has had multigenerational effects on Indigenous communities, from the loss of Native languages and cultural resources to cycles of violence and abuse.

“It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era,” Haaland wrote.

Haaland said her grandmother told her about being loaded on a train with other children from her village and being shipped off to boarding school.

“She spoke of the loneliness she endured,” Haaland recalled. “We wept together. It was an exercise in healing for her and a profound lesson for me about the resilience of our people, and even more about how important it is to reclaim what those schools tried to take from our people.”

Many of the schools were maintained by the Interior Department, which Haaland now leads.

Haaland has suggested that investments planned by the Biden administration and efforts to strengthen tribal sovereignty can help to heal the wrongs.

Rocio Hernandez is a senior field correspondent who was raised in the Las Vegas valley. She temporarily left the desert to work as the first bilingual reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah. There she covered immigration and education stories. Prior to KUER, Hernandez worked at the Associated Press’s office in Phoenix and has also interned for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Reno Public Radio (KUNR) and the East Bay Times. Hernandez fell in love with audio storytelling after participating in an NPR's “Next Gen Radio” training as a student at the University of Nevada, Reno.In her spare time, Hernandez enjoys cuddling with her two poodles, sipping margaritas and spending time with her husband.