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Probe reveals indigenous burial sites

By ZHAO XU in New York | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-05-14 08:08

The Genoa Indian School Interpretive Center, formerly the US Indian Industrial School Building, is seen on November 21, 2021 in Genoa, Nebraska. Researchers recently confirmed that at least 87 Native American children died at the school and have identified 50 of the students though the actual death toll is likely higher. [Photo/Agencies]

A government investigation has identified marked and unmarked burial sites at more than 50 former Native American boarding schools in the United States, with more sites expected to be located as the probe continues.

The first part of an investigative report focusing on the federally operated boarding schools, first set up in the early 19th century to cut off Native American children from their languages and cultural traditions, was released by the US Interior Department on Wednesday.

Deb Haaland, the department's secretary, launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which produced the report after the discovery of mass graves for native students who had attended similar schools in Canada.

According to the report, from 1819 to 1969, the US federal boarding school system for Native Americans consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then territories.

The investigation identified the sites at some 53 boarding schools.

"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," said Haaland.

In fact, "to kill the Indian and save the man" was the mandate given to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania-the first government-run off-reservation boarding school for Native American children in the US-by its founder, US Army general Richard Henry Pratt. He believed that to accomplish the goal of assimilation, the children must be removed from their tribal context.

In 1891, 12 years after Carlisle opened, the federal government made attendance at boarding school compulsory for all indigenous children. Those sent to the schools could be as old as 17 or 18. In some cases, young married women with children were forcibly enrolled. And children aged as young as 4 were sent to the schools, as they were considered the most malleable.

"Prior to this education-for-assimilation period, the federal policy toward Native Americans was extermination," said Samuel Torres of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

According to the newly released report, the federal boarding school system deployed "systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies". Those included renaming the children with English names, cutting their hair and barring them from using their native tongues.

Those who violated the rules were routinely subjected to physical punishment, including having their mouths washed out with soap, being held in dark solitary confinement for days or forced to run a gantlet whereby the victims went between two lines of fellow students, who swung their belts at them, egged on by the teacher.

Children kidnapped

Between the 1880s and the 1930s, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs trawled the reservations for students to fill the schools. The bureau routinely withheld provisions from those who refused to send their children to the schools.

In some cases its agents-who had a quota to fill-simply kidnapped children. It has been estimated that by 1926 nearly 83 percent of Native American school-age children were in the system.

The Meriam Report of 1928, commissioned by the Institute for Government Research and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, painted a damning picture of life at the boarding schools. Students sometimes had no access to soap and had to share towels, cups and beds. Those deprivations led to major outbreaks of trachoma, measles and tuberculosis. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 also hit the boarding schools hard. In most cases, school officials failed to notify parents of the sickness until their children died, often in agonizing solitude.

In the 1920s, Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian government's deputy superintendent of Indian affairs, said: "Indian children ... in the residential schools ... die at a much higher rate than in their villages. ... But this does not justify a change in the policy of this department, which is geared toward a final solution of our Indian problem."

Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, said upon the launch of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June last year that the discoveries of the unmarked graves in Canada had left her "sick to my stomach".


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