U.S. counts Indian boarding school deaths for first time but leaves key questions unanswered

NBC News [New York NY]

May 11, 2022

By Graham Lee Brewer

At least 500 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died while attending Indian boarding schools run or supported by the U.S. government, a highly anticipated Interior Department report said Wednesday. The report identified over 400 schools and more than 50 gravesites and said more gravesites would likely be found.

The report is the first time in U.S. history that the government has attempted to comprehensively research and acknowledge the magnitude of the horrors it inflicted on Native American children for decades. But it falls well short of some independent estimates of deaths and does not address how the children died or who was responsible. The report also sheds little new light on the physical and sexual abuse generations of Indigenous children endured at the schools, which were open for more than 150 years, starting in the early 1800s. 

The report and an accompanying news release acknowledge the harms to Indigenous children but stop short of offering an apology from the federal government, which tribal leaders have been requesting for decades. Last month, Pope Francis apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s boarding school system, and First Nation leaders there are asking him to apologize in person when he visits the country this summer. 

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s grandparents were both 8 years old when they were forced to attend boarding school, she said Wednesday at a news conference. “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,” Haaland said, holding back tears.

The trauma caused by federal Indian boarding school policies — including the separation of children as young as 4 years old from their families — dates back generations and is ongoing, Halaand said. The report is the first step toward understanding what assistance people need to overcome that trauma, she said, including mental health services and language revitalization, since children were abused and forbidden from speaking their native languages at the schools.

“Even though it’s ceased or stopped in many places, the vestiges of it is still continuing today,” said James LaBelle, Sr., who is Inupiaq and a vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit that helped compile the report and advocates for survivors of Indian boarding schools.

The report identified more than 500 child deaths after examining records for 19 of the facilities, a small share of the total number of schools identified. “As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of recorded deaths to increase,” it states. The number is significantly less than some estimates, which are in the tens of thousands. 

“The United States doesn’t even know how many Indian students went through these institutions — let alone how many actually died in them,” said Preston S. McBride, an Indian boarding school historian and a Comanche descendent. McBride has found more than 1,000 student deaths at the four former boarding schools he has studied, and estimates the overall number of deaths could be as high as 40,000.

“Basically every school had a cemetery,” he said. “There are deaths at or deaths because of virtually every single boarding school.”

Those deaths were the result of everything from illness to abuse, McBride said, based on his review of historical records, including letters written by students, parents and administrators. Getting to the true number would take a significant amount of time and research, McBride said. “I think we have a long way to go.”

The report notes the investigation will likely “reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

The Interior Department’s investigation located 53 gravesites across the country — a number that is also expected to increase — but did not name the schools to prevent “well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”

Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead the department, announced the investigation last June. It is intended to provide a basis for how the U.S. government will reckon with its troubling history by researching and locating potential gravesites, repatriating children’s remains and offering resources and access to the affected Indigenous communities to address the ongoing impact of the boarding schools.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland, who led the investigation and is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), said most of the staff who worked on the report for the department are Indigenous.

Their work has helped place the Indian boarding school system in its historical, legal and policy context, he said