U.S. confronts 'cultural genocide' in Native American boarding school probe

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U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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(Reuters) - A first-of-its-kind U.S. government investigation is helping to reveal the deadly and commonplace brutality of the former Native American “boarding school” system, a 150-year program of separating children from their families that was part of a federal policy to eradicate Native communities’ identity and forcibly take indigenous lands.

The Interior Department’s study follows decades of calls by advocates for the government to acknowledge and address the harms caused by the boarding schools, and represents the first official attempt to confront a system of racist dehumanization that resulted in cultural genocide and the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of children

The department’s report and initiative holds particular significance as an official acknowledgement by the U.S. government of its role in creating and perpetuating a system aimed at eliminating entire cultures and peoples.

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Still, the agency’s power to address past and ongoing harms is limited, and advocates and indigenous communities are continuing to push for remedial actions from the federal government.

An initial report released on May 11 found that the U.S. operated or supported more than 408 boarding institutions in 37 states between 1819 and 1969, many of which were run by churches and religious organizations. There were 431 schools identified in total, when counting schools with multiple sites. About 20 of the schools “accounted for over 500” child deaths, and officials expect the number of recorded deaths to increase exponentially, according to the report released May 11.

Emotional, physical and sexual abuse were rampant, in addition to malnutrition, overcrowding and lack of healthcare, officials wrote. Children were given new English names and had their hair cut. They were forbidden from speaking their own languages and from engaging in their cultural practices. Kids who died as a result of the abusive experience were often buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.

The U.S. paid for a large portion of this system of forced assimilation with money superficially owed to Native American Tribes under treaties to cede their lands to the United States – arrangements that were often coerced.

The initial findings of the investigation point to an even larger system of forced assimilation, and potentially more indigenous children who were abused and died in the government’s care, than in Canada, which has gone further in its process of truth and reconciliation.

Officials there said in 2015 that the government had pursued a policy of “cultural genocide” in order to ignore its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal Canadians and to gain control of their land and resources.

At least 139 schools and 6,000 deaths were identified in a six-year investigation of Canada’s “residential schools,” according to a June 2015 report by the CBC. Indigenous communities have reported the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves in Canada since the investigation closed and have urged the government to do a more thorough accounting, Reuters reported in July last year.

The Interior Department’s first report found nearly three times as many school sites in the U.S. as were recorded in Canada (and more than 40 more schools than advocates had previously identified).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, said while announcing the preliminary findings that the boarding schools' polices “attempted to wipe out Native identity,” and “continue to manifest in the pain tribal communities face today.”

“This report places the Federal Indian boarding school system in its historical context, explaining that the United States established this system as part of a broader objective to dispossess Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and the Native Hawaiian Community of their territories to support the expansion of the United States,” officials wrote in the report.

“The deaths of Indian children while under the care of the Federal Government, or federally supported institutions, led to the breakup of Indian families and the erosion of Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and the Native Hawaiian Community.”

Still, advocates for Native Americans say much more must be done. A House committee for Indigenous peoples’ issues held a hearing over whether to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on May 12, a day after the Interior Department released its report.

Survivors and descendants of people who attended the boarding schools delivered searing and visceral personal accounts of degrading treatment, brutal corporal punishment and constant sexual abuse.

“These schools were magnets for pedophiles,” said James LaBelle Sr, the first vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

The department’s initiative will undoubtedly shed some light on a dark corner of our history that remains largely unknown to many non-Native Americans. It’s an essential first step toward acknowledging the injustices and addressing the lingering effects of more than a century of racist and destructive federal policies that targeted indigenous children and families.

Even at this early stage, the evidence clearly supports an even broader national effort to acknowledge, apologize and begin to repair the harms caused by these inhumane practices of our recent past.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com