One month after the discovery of the remains of more than 200 children buried at the site of what was once Canada's largest Indigenous residential school, the US government has announced that it will investigate Native American boarding schools that over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities.
US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, announced the investigation on Tuesday while addressing members of the National Congress of American Indians during the group's midyear conference.
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 weren't allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.
The remains of the 215 children — some of whom were believed to have been as young as 3 years old — were discovered in the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The remains were discovered using a radar specialist, who has yet to complete a survey of the school's grounds, officials said.
The US investigation will include compiling and reviewing decades of records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students, Haaland said.
Interior Department officials said they will protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.
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.
She cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80 percent of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations.
A final report from the Interior Department staff is due by April 1, 2022. Haaland said the investigation will be long, difficult and painful and won't undo the heartbreak and loss endured by many families.
"To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be," she said.
With the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the US enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For more than 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.
More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children at the off-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama signed off on an apology that was buried deep in a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill, but the language had been watered down.
Chuck Hoskin Jr, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which had about 80 boarding schools, called Haaland's announcement of the federal investigation encouraging and said anything that can be done to address those "troubling chapters of history" is a positive thing.
"I hope we don't discover gruesome incidents like were discovered in Canada. I just think it's good in this country to have conversations about what happened to Native American children," he said.
Navajo Nation President Nez also supported the initiative, noting discrimination against Native Americans continues today on many fronts, from voter suppression to high numbers of missing and murdered people.