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DOI report offers a glimpse into buried history of federal boarding schools

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Of the hundreds of boarding schools funded by the federal government that beat, belittled and whitewashed the culture and history out of Indigenous children, 16 were in Montana.

That is, according to a report published by the Department of the Interior earlier this week. The report, a part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative launched last year is the first federal effort to appreciate and document the scale of the damage inflicted by U.S. boarding schools operating in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Montana Federal Indian Boarding Schools

Preliminary data published in the first report from the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative identified 16 federal Indian boarding school sites. 

“This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession,” wrote Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, which is included in the report.

Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo woman and the first Native American to serve as a federal Cabinet secretary, announced the initiative a few months after her confirmation in March 2021. The initiative followed demands from the First Nations of Canada for the Canadian government and Catholic Church to recognize and address the decades of abuse the Indigenous families suffered in the residential school system.

The Canadian government relegated well over 100,000 Indigenous children into state-funded religious schools from the 19th century and through the 1960s, the Associated Press reported, with the aim of assimilating and Christianizing them.

The predominantly Catholic congregations who administered the residential schools implemented corporal punishment and forbid children from speaking their Native languages to achieve this assimilation. The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves where Indigenous children were buried at residential school sites spurred an outpouring of personal accounts of beatings and sexual abuse carried out by school officials. The Canadian government has since committed over $320 million to fund searches for more grave sites, and assist survivors of the residential school system.

“The assimilationist policies of the past are contrary to the doctrine of trust responsibility, under which the Federal Government must promote Tribal self-governance and cultural integrity,” Haaland wrote in a memorandum outlining the goals of the initiative in June 2021.

“Nevertheless, the legacy of Indian boarding schools remains, manifesting itself in Indigenous communities through intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and other undocumented bodily and mental impacts.”

Carlisle Indian School student body

Carlisle Indian School student body around 1885, with the Superintendent’s House in background. Photo courtesy of Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections. 

The initiative’s priority was finding those Indigenous children buried in the United States far from their homes and families. To achieve that, DOI staff have spent the past year identifying federal Indian boarding school sites, pouring over enrollment information and consulting with tribal members.

To meet the report’s definition of a federal boarding school, an institution had to provide housing and formal training for Indigenous students and be described in records as having received federal funding or support. It also had to be operating before 1969, which marked the most recent opening date of a federal Indian boarding school.

The report found 408 such schools operating across the contiguous United States, or what was then territories, and in Alaska and Hawaii. Outside of those schools, there were over 1,000 “Indian day schools, sanitariums, asylums, orphanages, and stand-alone dormitories that may have involved education of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people, mainly Indian children,” according to the report.

About half of the federal boarding schools may have received support from religious institutions and organizations, Catholic and Protestant, according to an initial estimate from the report. That support came in the form of funding, construction and administration, and in accordance with the 1819 Civilization Fund Act, which gave federal support to efforts to “civilize” the continent’s first peoples.

Indigenous children who entered into the boarding school system frequently did so against the will of their family. School personnel cut their hair and assigned them English names. With a militarized system enforced by flogging and starvation, most of the curriculum focused on manual labor and vocational training that left “graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting tribal economies.”

The report identified 16 federal Indian boarding schools in Montana, home to 12 tribal nations. The sites are spread across the state, from St. Ignatius on what is now the Flathead Indian Reservation to Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The highest concentration of sites are in and around the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations. All but two of the Montana boarding schools have closed. St. Paul Mission Grade School, a Catholic private school located on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation which had operated intermittently since the 1880s, closed last year due to a lack of staffing, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

The two Indian school sites still operating are St. Labre Indian School in Ashland and Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, formerly known as St. Xavier Mission School. Both were built in the 1880s. In 2015, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe reached a settlement with St. Labre Indian School after the tribe alleged the Catholic institution had garnered millions of dollars in fundraising at the expense of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, the Gazette previously reported.

Indigenous girls attending St. Labre Indian School

Girls attending St. Labre Indian School in Ashland sometime between 1879 and 1930. 

The authors of the report note that all of the data provided is preliminary and subject to change with subsequent volumes. However, 53 marked and unmarked burial sites have been located so far. The DOI has attributed more than 500 deaths of Indigenous children to about 19 federal Indian schools, and that number is expected to increase as the investigation continues. DOI is not making public the location of gravesites to prevent vandalism.

Future plans for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative include documenting a complete list of all the children subjected to federal boarding school, finding every marked and unmarked gravesite associated with the federal boarding school system and creating a repository of records specific to that system.

“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” Haaland said in a statement released Wednesday.

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