Indian Boarding Schools Were Part of “Genocidal Process” Carried Out by the US

The Interior Department has documented the deaths more than 500 Indigenous children who died at Indian boarding schools that were run or supported in part by the federal government of the United States. These schools operated between 1819 and 1969. The death toll is likely to be much higher. The report also identified 53 burial sites at former schools. The first Indigenous cabinet member, Deb Haaland, ordered the report. His grandparents were forced to attend boarding schools at the age 8. “It’s kind of a misnomer to actually call these educational institutions or schools themselves when you didn’t have very many people graduating, let alone surviving the dire conditions of those schools,” says Nick Estes, historian and co-founder of The Red Nation. Estes says the institutions were part of a “genocidal process” of “dispossession and theft of Indigenous people’s lands and resources.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:A new reportThe Interior Department has documented the deaths in Indian boarding schools that were run or supported by the United States federal government. However, the death toll is likely to be much higher. The report also identified 53 burial grounds at former schools that were operated for more than a century. The Department of Interior’s first report details the terrible history of the schools, which were notorious for forcing students to change their culture, clothing, and language.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (a Laguna Pueblo member) ordered the report. Her grandparents were forced to attend school boarding school when she was 8. She spoke on Wednesday.

INTERIOR SECRETARY DEB HAALAND:Tens of thousands of Indigenous kids were taken from their communities over the past century and forced into boarding school run by the U.S. government. …

When my maternal grandparents were only 8 years old, they were stolen from their parents’ culture and communities and forced to live in boarding schools until the age of 13. Many children like them never got back to their families. …

Federal policies that sought to eliminate Native identity, culture, and language continue to manifest today in the pain that tribal communities are experiencing. These include cycles of violence, abuse, disappearances of Indigenous peoples, poverty, loss of wealth, mental disorders, and substance abuse. Recognizing the impact of the federal Indian Boarding School system cannot be considered a historical fact. We must also plan a way forward to address these legacy issues. …

The strength and determination of Native people is evident in the fact that I am standing before you today as your first Indigenous cabinet secretary. My ancestors persevered and I am here because of them. My grandmother and my mother are my inspirations. The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative’s work will have a transformative impact on all generations that follow.

AMY GOODMAN:This was Interior Secretary Deb Háland. Matthew War Bonnet, a 6-year-old boy who was taken to boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, testified Thursday about his experiences before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.

MATTHEW WAR BONNET:My boarding school experience was extremely difficult and traumatic. I can still remember the moment I arrived at school. The priests took us into a big room that had six to eight bathtubs. The priest took all the little boys and put them in one tub. After that, he scrubbed our bodies with a big brush. The brush left our skins and backs raw. Then, we had to get our hair cut. The school then placed all the little boys into the same dormitory. We were together from the first through fourth grade. All the children were crying at night.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the history of Indian boarding schools run or supported by the U.S. government, we’re joined by Nick Estes in Minneapolis, writer, historian, author of the book Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. He’s co-founder of the Indigenous resistance group The Red Nation and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

Nick, welcome back Democracy Now!Discuss the importance of this new Interior Department Report.

NICK ESTES:Amy, I am so grateful that you had me.

Secretary Haaland can clearly tell you that this is an emotional experience for many Indigenous peoples in this country. It should also be an experience for non-Indigenous citizens in this country. This is an historic moment in time. Although it’s not new news to Indigenous people, it might be new news to those who are hearing this horrific genocidal process that has taken place.

I think, you know, there’s a reason why the forcibly transferring of children from one group to another group is an international legal definition of genocide. That’s what we’re talking about, because taking children, or the process of Indian child removal, has been one strategy for terrorizing Native families for centuries, from the mass removal of Native children from their communities into boarding schools, as this new report lays out, from their communities into their widespread adoption and fostering out to mostly white families, which happened primarily in the 20th century.

This report is historic in that it documents, I believe for the first time, how the federal government admitted to the genocidal process. Of course they don’t use that language in this report, but many of the researchers, most of whom were Indigenous, who did the legwork on this first volume — I think it’s going to be the first volume of several volumes — to say that this is a widespread — this was a widespread, systematic destruction, not just of our culture but of our nations, as well as an open, you know, theft of land.

And I think that’s important to talk about here, that settler colonialism isn’t just about targeting Native people because they hate our culture, our language or our religion, but this boarding school system came at a time when the United States government, at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century, was looking to consolidate its western frontier through the Dawes Allotment Act, which resulted in hundreds of millions of acres of Indian territory being opened up for white settlement and using Indian children as hostages. And that’s the language of the policy reformers at the time. That’s the language that they were using. They were saying, “We are going to use these children as hostages” for the, quote-unquote, “good behavior” of their people.

AMY GOODMAN:Now, you’ve visited and reported on a particular Indian boarding school: the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This school was founded in 1879. Can you give an example of what happened in this country by referring to that?

NICK ESTES:Carlisle was the epitome of off-reservation Indian Indian boarding schools. In fact, the Carlisle Indian School had the first classes who entered because they were Lakota, specifically from Pine Ridge and Rosebud Agencies. We had been a strong resistance to the Dawes Allotment Act which was meant to break the tribal bonds of our people.

And so, that first class that went, it’s documented in Luther Standing Bear’s two autobiographies that he wrote. He’s from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. And he talks about these schools as not being so much schools, but as prisoner of war camps, where they learned — they didn’t learn, you know, the ABCs or language and mathematics, the things that you would expect to learn at schools. They learned military discipline because General Pratt or Colonel Pratt was a military man. This was a strange arrangement between U.S. military personnel and the Department of Interior to operate this off-reservation school. However, the militarized discipline was instilled in many of these off-reservation schools along with the inculcation of U.S. patriotism and flag worship as well as religious obedience.

And so, the first classes that went to the Carlisle Indian School, according to the testimony of Luther Standing Bear, who was part of that first incoming class, half of them didn’t even return home. Many of them were killed at that school. So, it’s kind of a misnomer to actually call these educational institutions or schools themselves when you didn’t have very many people graduating, let alone surviving the dire conditions of those schools.

They also document forced labor in this report. The unpaid labor of Native children was used to subsidize the insufficient resources that the federal government wasn’t providing for Indian education at the time. So it was a horrific experience for those who didn’t make it out, but it was also a horrific experience for those who did make it out.

Today, hundreds of gravestones can be found at the Carlisle Indian School entrance. Many tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of Sioux, have been working to return their ancestors. Some of them have been successful. But it’s also important to point out that some of the children that died there are from tribal nations that don’t — you know, that have protocols around not disturbing their ancestors when they’re interred into the earth. This is a delicate situation. It’s not just the problem of the federal government; it’s also the problem of the U.S. military.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask —

NICK ESTES: Because this is an active — it’s an active military base. I think that’s important to point out, too.

AMY GOODMAN:Preston McBride, Preston McBride, Dartmouth College research has shown that as many as 40,000 Native American children were killed in government-run boarding schools across the U.S. This report states that 500. Could you please explain more about this discrepancy

NICK ESTES: Yeah, I think in the press briefing by the Department of Interior yesterday, it was pointed out by Deb Haaland, as well as Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland, that this was a preliminary report and that they’ve identified over 53 marked or unmarked gravesites at these various off-reservation boarding schools and on-reservation boarding schools. And I think it’s a really delicate matter, because, for example, the Rapid City Indian School, which is in Rapid City, South Dakota, the burial sites are actually within the community itself. There have been housing developments built on top of the burial sites. Many people are reluctant about identifying them publicly due to the history of grave robbery at many of these burial sites. And so, I think what Preston is saying is very true, that this is an undercount, because it’s an initial survey of these specific gravesites. But I think as this investigation goes underway and more documents become available for the public, we’re going to see those numbers continue to rise. And it’s very tragic.

I think it’s important to point out that this initiative began last June, when several hundred Native children’s graves were found in Canada. But where are all the stories about all the surveys that these First Nations are doing at these locations? And the numbers are in the thousands right now, but it’s not making headlines, you know? And so I think it’s important to pay attention to this as it unfolds and to really listen to a lot of the Native elders, as well as the Native researchers who have been doing this historically. This isn’t new news to us, you know. We don’t have a definitive number. We only have the common experience with the boarding school system that has impacted every American Indian living in this country.

AMY GOODMAN:Do you have concerns about the report’s accuracy? In fact, it’s true the Interior Department report said they expect to find thousands, if not tens of thousands, of deaths. But you’re talking about a report that was released by the Interior Department and worked on by the Bureau of Indian Affairs within that, which actually ran the whole boarding school system. The new development is that Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, is now in charge.

NICK ESTES: Yeah, I think it’s important to point out that Deb Haaland is — you know, I think she’s been in this position for just over a year now. And one year, you know, in the face of a century and a half of genocidal Indian policy, isn’t that much, when we think about how history unfolds.

But also I think it’s important to point out that the perpetrator of this crime against humanity is now going to be the adjudicator of justice, so to speak. And there were questions of Deb Haaland’s office yesterday about what reparations will look like on behalf of tribes. They’re modeling their truth and reconciliation process off of the Canadian model. But it’s important to point out that the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission only came about because of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residential school survivors. I think the Department of Interior has a poor track-record in adjudicating and accounting its own crimes.

We can see the Cobell settlement which took place in 2011. You know, the — excuse me — the banker, Elouise Cobell, she was from the Blackfoot Nation. She did a forensic audit of the United States and found that the federal government had mismanaged $176 billion of individual Indian moneys, and the Department of Interior awarded itself, because we’re still considered wards of the government, $3.5 billion. That’s almost pennies on the dollar of what she had accounted for in terms of damages that we were awarded.

And so, it’s no coincidence that Indian people are in the same department that manages wildlife and federal lands. You know, we have — I heard earlier in the broadcast that the Department of Interior is kind of going back on this overt federal leasing program. But it’s not just the question of Indian boarding schools, you know, because Indian boarding schools were one facet of a larger process of dispossession and theft of Indigenous people’s lands and resources, because the Indian boarding school system was actually using treaty annuities and federal funds that was meant for Indian education for this genocidal process. This money was obtained by the sale of our land and to white settlers. It was also obtained through the dispossession by the federal government of those lands. And so there’s a lot of accounting to be done here.

The report identifies 39,000 boxes containing materials that the federal government owns. I think it’s about 9 — over 9 million pages of documents that need to be reviewed. It’s a tiny amount to fund an investigation into a century of genocidal policies. But it is important to point out that there is — Representative Sharice Davids, who’s a Democrat from Kansas and also from an Indigenous nation herself, has a bill that’s going through Congress right now that will open up, I think, more federal money for an investigative process that will look not only into the federal Indian boarding school system but also look into the role of faith groups, specifically the Catholic Church and its role in these genocidal educational policies.

AMY GOODMAN:We will be following all of this, however.