500 Native Americans died in US boarding schools, report finds

A makeshift memorial for the dozens of Indigenous children who died more than a century ago while attending a boarding school that was once located nearby is displayed under a tree at a public park in Albuquerque, N.M., on July 1, 2021. (AP photo)

The United States has identified over 500 deaths at its boarding schools that for over a century sought to assimilate Native American children into white society.

A report released Wednesday by the Interior Department identified the deaths in records for nearly 20 of the schools, where children were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages and often abused.

“Many of those children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites far from their Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and families, often hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away,” the report said.

The department found at least 53 burial sites at or near the boarding schools, both marked and unmarked.

The number of known deaths, which were caused by disease, accidental injuries and abuse, could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands, the department said.

The report expands to more than 400 the number of schools that were established or supported by the US government starting in the early 19th century and continuing in some cases until the late 1960s.

“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,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Haaland described how the boarding school era perpetuated poverty, mental health disorders, substance abuse and premature deaths in Indigenous communities.

“Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning,” she said. “We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues.”

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said.

The Interior Department said that a second volume of the report will cover the burial sites, the federal government’s financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the schools on Indigenous communities.

The new report comes after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.

In May 2021, an indigenous community unmarked a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

Canada forced more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend these government-funded compulsory boarding schools as part of a policy meant to assimilate indigenous children and destroy indigenous cultures and languages.

The children, who were stripped of their languages and culture, were also subjected to abuse, rape, and malnutrition. Thousands are believed to have died while attending those schools.

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