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Federal boarding school report acknowledges destructive policies towards Indigenous children and communities

Students at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Newkirk, Okla.
courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society and the Chilocco Alumni Association
Students at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Newkirk, Okla.

For the first time in history, the United States government has officially and openly acknowledged that federal Indian boarding schools were intentionally designed as part of a system to take Indian land and assimilate Native Americans into white society. They also acknowledged this stripping of Native culture caused generations of harm.

A report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs investigates the 400 boarding schools that operated in 37 states from 1819 to 1969.

Oklahoma had the largest concentration of boarding schools, with 76 in total.

A map showing locations of identified federal Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma.
U.S. Department of the Interior
A map showing locations of identified federal Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma.

Previous reports on Indian education and boarding schools, such as the Meriam Report released in 1928 and the Kennedy Report released in 1969, focused on the conditions of the schools and made recommendations on how to improve boarding schools. Neither acknowledged their role in Native American cultural assimilation or land theft.

"When my maternal grandparents were only eight years old, they were stolen from their parents, culture and communities and forced to live in boarding schools until the age of 30," Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said as the findings were released.

The report is more than 100 pages in length and was researched over more than a year using original documents from the National Archives, American Indian Records Repository, Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Trust Funds Administration.

It found that in spite of promises from the federal government, the boarding school programs were paid for by selling trust land, which was supposed to be held for the benefit of Native Americans.

For example, between 1845 and 1855, while over $2 million was spent on the Federal Indian boarding school system, Federal appropriations accounted for only 1/20th, or $10,000 per year, of the sum, with Indian trust fund monies supplying the rest," the report said.

The report also details exchanges between government officials who talked openly about forcibly taking children from Native families and sending them to boarding schools, which were designed to treat children harshly in an effort to strip them of their Native languages and force them to speak English.

“It wasn’t a preparatory academy. It was a work camp for children,” said Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe in northeast Oklahoma.

Barnes is trying to reconcile the tribe’s history with the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Indian Manual Labor School that was located in eastern Kansas. His own great-great-grandfather ran away from the school in 1850.

He said he’s glad this new report is widening the conversation around boarding schools and showing just how many there really were. Many people know about more notorious schools, such as Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was located in Pennsylvania and became a model for many other boarding schools. However, he says few people know about the hundreds of others that were dotted across the country.

“I’m glad the report also reflects that religious institutions were a large part of trying to indoctrinate Indigenous children,” said Barnes.

In the listing of Federal boarding schools in the report, many were operated by Catholic, Mennonite and Presbyterian churches.

In this first report, researchers were able to document 53 burial sites at or near the schools. Some of them contain unmarked graves of children who were presumably residents. They expect to find more as their work continues.

"Many children, like them, never made it back to their homes. Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system," said Haaland.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would set up a Boarding School Commission. Ben Barnes testified Thursday about the need to investigate the harm boarding schools wrought on Indigenous communities. He recently told the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Rights the same thing.

The report released this week is the first in what is expected to be a series of reports. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Newland said more work needs to be done to complete data collection, consult with tribal nations and identify additional burial sites. More than $7 million dollars has been dedicated to that work.

Next steps include:

  1. Continue with a full investigation
  2. Identify surviving Federal Indian boarding school attendees.
  3. Document Federal Indian boarding school attendee experiences
  4. Support protection, preservation, reclamation, and co-management of sites across the Federal Indian boarding school system where the Federal Government has jurisdiction over a location.
  5. Develop a specific repository of Federal records involving the Federal Indian boarding school system at the Department of the Interior Library to preserve centralized Federal expertise on the Federal Indian boarding school system.
  6. Identify and engage other Federal agencies to support the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative,
  7. Support non-Federal entities that may independently release records under their control.
  8. Promote Indian health research
  9. Promote language revitalization
  10. Recognize the generations of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children that experienced the Federal Indian boarding school system with a Federal memorial.
  • You can read the full report here.
  • View thelist of Federal Indian boarding schools profiled in the report, including schools within Oklahoma
  • View a map of where schools were located
Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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