US Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, seeking to provide a “comprehensive renew of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.” The announcement came during Haaland’s remarks at the National Congress of American Indians 2021 Mid Year Conference.
Through the 1960s, the US enacted several laws establishing Indian boarding schools across the country. Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the schools—based on those established by religious missions—sought to culturally assimilate thousands of Indigenous children “by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”
In an accompanying memorandum, Haaland stressed that the DOI “must address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the traumas of the past.” “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,” she wrote.
The investigation’s primary goal will be to identify (1) the locations of boarding school facilities; (2) locations of known and possible student burial sites at or near the schools; and (3) the identities and Tribal affiliation of children interred at those sites.
The multiphase investigation will include formal consultations with Tribal Nations, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations and will conclude with a final written report, submitted to the Secretary by April 2022.
The memo credited the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation as “prompt[ing] us to reflect on past Federal policies to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples in the United States.”
Since the discovery, a group of Canadian lawyers has formally requested the International Criminal Court to investigate. In 2008 former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the country’s former Indian residential schools policy, which was designed to “aggressively assimilate aboriginal children.”
In her former position as a representative of New Mexico, Haaland introduced HR 8420 to establish the Truth and Health Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy to study the impacts and ongoing effects of the policy. The DOI continues to operate residential boarding schools through the Bureau of Indian Education.