Disturbing truth of U.S. treatment against native Americans

May 13, 2022 - 18:14

A federal investigation has unveiled another dark chapter in the United States' treatment of Native Americans.

The much-anticipated study has identified the sites of 53 boarding schools where native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and endured torture as well as more than 50 "marked or unmarked burial sites" with more than 500 student deaths.

The report says "approximately 19 Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian child deaths,"

The new research vastly expands on the former narrative of Native American boarding schools that for over a century stripped Indigenous children of their language and culture in the name of assimilation. 

However, this is just the first installment of a massive report by the U.S. Interior Department which found more than 400 government-run schools.

With the research ongoing, experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg. Deborah Parker, head of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition; assisting the investigation, said the report just scratched the surface of the trauma.

The native American child death toll at the hands of U.S. authorities is expected to dramatically climb, with the report itself admitting the total number of children who were killed at such schools will eventually reach between the “thousands” to the “tens of thousands.”

It documents how hundreds of Native American children at the government-run boarding schools died under physical abuse and the denial of food.

The investigation was ordered following similar abuses and discoveries in neighboring Canada that sparked widespread global outrage and alarm last summer.

According to the report the Federal Indian boarding school system ran between 1819 and 1969.

As promised, survivors were given the opportunity to deliver testimony in front of a House panel; all of which was emotional.

They recalled different types of disturbing abuse.

Their testimonies will also support measures to create a truth commission to investigate exactly what happened during this dark chapter in U.S. history.

James LaBelle Sr., a member of Native Village of Port Graham in Alaska, is a survivor of one such boarding school.

He told lawmakers of his time in the schools, beginning in the 1950s, detailing attempts to rid him and others of their Native heritage.

Other survivors also reported similar accounts of falling victim to physical, sexual, emotional abuse, having their hair cut, being beaten for speaking Native languages, and being stripped of their Native identities.

“I’ve been waiting 67 years to tell this story,” LaBelle told the panel. “while I might have received a white man’s education, in the process, I lost my own language, my own culture, my traditions.”

Such was the torment and sexual abuse some of the survivors endured; they kept their accounts hidden even from their own communities.

Matthew War Bonnet, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, now in his seventies says “all us kids that attended boarding school, we never speak about our experience in the school,” adding “I guess we just didn’t want to hurt each other.”

War Bonnet said the history of the boarding schools left survivors traumatized, with many turning to alcohol and becoming abusers themselves.

Last year the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, announced an investigation will be launched. Unveiling the first part of the report she was left speaking through tears and in a choked-up voice during a media conference in Washington.

"The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language, and culture continue to manifest in the pain tribal communities face today," Haaland said.

"We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past."

Government researchers found records on 408 schools that received federal funding from 1819 to 1969, and another 89 schools that reportedly did not receive funding from the government.

Where that funding came from is open to debate.

About half the schools were run by the government or supported by churches. Researchers insist too many children were abused at the schools, and tens of thousands were never heard from again.

The report notes that "rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse" took place at the schools and is well documented, and so far the investigation has found more than 500 children who died while in school custody.

The next goals of the investigation are to estimate the number of kids who attended the school system, the number of burial sites, and identify how much federal funds went to churches that took part in the school system, among other issues.

In 2020, Haaland a former congresswoman from New Mexico

introduced legislation calling for a Truth and Healing Commission into conditions at former Native American boarding schools. That legislation is still pending.

"Our children had names. Our children had families. Our children have their own languages. Our children had their own regalia, prayers, and religion before Indian boarding schools violently took them away." she said.

Experts say that after decades of violently removing American Natives from their ancestral homelands, the U.S. government set its sights on a new strategy: boarding schools.

Starting in 1879, thousands of Indigenous children were cruelly taken from their homes and sent to schools very far away where practicing their cultures from which they came was essentially forbidden.

Some claim the objective was so native people could succeed in white American society, if only they left behind their traditional ways, but many of the boarding school children never saw their parents again.

While assimilation has been cited as the primary reason for the boarding schools, experts say U.S. authorities were also motivated by the desire to take Native lands.

From 1887 to 1934, the U.S. stole at least 90 million acres, which is about two-thirds of all tribal land, and sold them to non-Native U.S. settlers under the so-called Dawes Act.

Essentially, Native Americans were not accustomed to a life of with different standards of ranching and agriculture and the lands allocated to the natives were not even suitable for farming anyway.

Native Americans controlled about 150 million acres of land before the Dawes Act and they lost the majority of it after this so-called legislation.

Brenda Child is a historian and professor at the University of Minnesota. She says that "by the 1930s, the United States had accomplished what it set out to do at the beginning of the assimilation era: control reservation properties and turn them over to White landowners,"

Much of the 19th century was marked by the armed conflicts of the U.S. wars against the Indians; when native tribes fought a brave resistance against U.S. attempts to ethnically cleanse them from their lands.

Historians have said U.S. authorities decided the boarding school system for Native people was less expensive than armed conflicts. Federal officials estimated it cost significantly more to kill one Indigenous person in battle in comparison to forcing an Indigenous child to boarding schools.

K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a retired professor of American Indian studies says "certainly there was police force used in many instances, and by police force I mean armed officers going to Indian communities and taking children by force," Lomawaima said.

Today, Indigenous nations and activists are still trying to understand the extent of what happened at these schools.

Their efforts are largely focused on identifying the children buried and determining how the U.S. can reckon with this troubling chapter of its history.

Until today Native Americans are not living in peace. Several weeks ago they sounded the alarm over a host of congressional bills that they say will suppress their right to vote.

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