What Native American children endured at one Missouri boarding school

PBS NewsHour [Arlington VA]

May 21, 2022

By Gabrielle Hays and Geoff Bennett

[With video]

For the first time, the U.S. government released a report this month detailing the abuse and mistreatment of Native children who were forcibly sent to boarding schools in the 1800s. NewsHour’s St Louis community reporter Gabrielle Hays, who has been reporting on one school in Missouri that fits into this painful history, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss what she uncovered.

Geoff Bennett: For the first time, the U.S. government released a report this month detailing the abuse and mistreatment of native children who were forcibly sent to boarding schools in the 1800s. Our St. Louis Community reporter, Gabrielle Hays has been reporting on one school in Missouri, that fits into this painful history. And Gabrielle joins us now. So tell us more about this boarding school, the St. Regis Seminary opened in 1824. What did your reporting uncover?

Gabrielle Hays: Yeah, so we learned at this school, as you said, opened in 1824. And it later closed in 1831. So it wasn’t open for that long. Well, we do know is that, you know, what was promised, the idea from the beginning was that these schools were, “going to provide an education.” But the research shows what’s reflected in this report from the Department of Interior, which is that that wasn’t that the case that these children were specifically at St. Regis worked long hours in fields, they did manual labor. And now also, many of them were also abused physically, violence, there was violence in these schools, and then one here, Missouri, and so we kind of work to piece together what happened in those seven years, as much as we could, and for the most part from letters.

Geoff Bennett: And this was a Jesuit school. So how have the Jesuits responded? And how are they reconciling with their past?

Gabrielle Hays: Yeah, so it was the Society of Jesus, that open this school, and they actually opened more than one across the parts of the country. And so we’ve been in communication with the Jesuits. And we know that they released a statement, I believe, last year, kind of acknowledging what happened at these schools. But recently, more recently, I believe in January, they brought in a researcher that’s going to be based here in St. Louis. And that person is supposed to take a look at the history, the Jesuits involvement and kind of piece together that story. And so we’ve worked with them in some of that work, but it will be important to see what they are able to uncover and sort of release because we were able to piece together the story through records and things that they kept. And so we’re waiting to kind of see what else they have and what else we can learn.

Geoff Bennett: So put this into the larger context for us, because the Department of the Interior, as you will know, it says Native American children are forced into assimilation at 408 boarding schools, federal boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gabrielle Hays: Yeah. And I think it’s important also to note, that report makes it clear that there are 408 that they have included, but that number could possibly grow. And so I think that that’s important.You know, in reading that report, it was so striking because so many of the things that we were able to uncover, whether it was assimilation tactics, or the promises that were made or the experience of the children, or some of the language that that was used in these letters to justify what happened at the schools. We could see the reading that letter, reading that report that would happen in St. Louis, would happen in Florissant, it wasn’t just our story, it was a story that happened across several states. And so it’s — St Louis has a chapter but it’s a much bigger story.

Geoff Bennett: Our St. Louis Community Reporter Gabrielle Hays. Gabby, thanks so much for being with us.

Gabrielle Hays: Thank you.