Nearly two dozen Democrats on Friday urged the Indian Health Service director to set up a support system for Native Americans experiencing trauma as revelations emerge from the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative, a first-of-its-kind formal review of the history of the U.S. government’s policy of taking Indigenous children away from their families and forcing them into boarding schools for assimilation into white culture.
The initiative, which Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in June, entails investigating past boarding school sites, the location of known and possible burial sites nearby where Indigenous children were brutalized and died, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children taken there. The effort also serves as a starting point for raising public awareness of the former government policy, which most Americans never learned about in school.
“As Interior’s investigation progresses, it will inevitably shed light on extremely troubling episodes in our nation’s history,” a group of House and Senate Democrats wrote to IHS acting Director Elizabeth Fowler, in a letter first obtained by HuffPost. “We urge IHS to consider potential protections for those experiencing trauma from the Indian Boarding School Policies and the revelations that will continue to emerge.”
The lawmakers called on IHS to set up a culturally competent hotline for survivors and families of people who suffered or died in the government-run boarding schools, in addition to other forms of mental and spiritual support developed in collaboration with tribal nations. They said these suggestions were brought to them by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the National Indian Health Board, which serves all 574 federally recognized tribal nations.
“The Indian Boarding School era is a stain in America’s history,” the lawmakers wrote, “and it is long overdue that we begin to formally investigate the past wrongs and ongoing harms of these policies.”
The letter, signed by 21 House and Senate Democrats, was spearheaded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), one of four Native American members of Congress.
Here’s a copy of their letter:
The point of the boarding schools, which the U.S. government funded from 1869 into the 1960s, was cultural genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into faraway facilities to be assimilated into white culture. They weren’t allowed to speak their native languages. Their hair was cut off. They were dressed in clothes considered acceptable in white culture.
They also endured horrific levels of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Many died. Their parents were banned from speaking to them, and faced reductions in food rations and sometimes incarceration if they didn’t comply.
By 1926, the U.S. government had removed nearly 83% of Native children from their families and enrolled them in one of 367 boarding schools across 30 states.
The Interior Department still operates residential boarding schools through the Bureau of Indian Education, but they don’t resemble the schools of the past. Indigenous children are encouraged “to practice their spirituality, learn their language and carry their culture forward” in modern-day boarding schools, according to the Interior Department.
Haaland, the first Native American U.S. Cabinet secretary, said she was launching the project because it is long past time to address the “intergenerational trauma” that continues to haunt Indigenous people. In Canada, where a similar review is underway, the bodies of more than 200 Indigenous children were uncovered at the site of a former boarding school in May.
That was the news that prompted Haaland to act.
“Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose, because forced assimilation policies ended their lives too soon,” she said. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
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