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Interior Department releases report on abusive history of Native American boarding schools

4-H Park sign Boarding School Burial Site
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
FILE - 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. The U.S. Interior Department is expected to release a report Wednesday, May 11, 2022, that it says will begin to uncover the truth about the federal government's past oversight of Native American boarding schools. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

The Department of the Interior released a highly anticipated report today documenting the history of the harmful and deadly Native American boarding school system in the United States. The investigation documented "systematic and militarized practices" spanning 150 years at over 408 schools around the country. Source New Mexico reporter Shaun Griswold, who’s covered this story locally for a long time now, spoke with KUNM about the report.

KUNM: What is the weight of the federal government finally putting this information together after so much harm done to generations of people?

SHAUN GRISWOLD: Significance here is the federal government is acknowledging the abusive history — the genocidal history — that was created and evolved with the federal boarding school initiatives. They identify 408 schools across 37 states. They found 53 unmarked graves at some of those school sites. And we found out that in New Mexico has 43 of these schools throughout our history, which is the third most in the country behind Oklahoma and Arizona. And the scope of the timeframe for this, the federal government has identified this between 1819 and 1969.

KUNM: And how did Secretary Deb Haaland and other staff talk about those harms?

GRISWOLD: Secretary Haaland teared up almost several times during the period. I mean, she's directly impacted by this. She talked about her maternal grandmother being taken from her home at eight years old to have to go to a boarding school — a very common experience for so many Native Americans. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland said that this era has affected every Indigenous person in this country.

KUNM: And did the Interior Department talk about financial restitution?

GRISWOLD: While there wasn't any explicit support for financial restitution, it wasn't turned down either. Secretary Haaland did mention that President Biden does understand the significance and importance of treaty obligations, and also did not neglect the concept that financial restitution could become a possibility. I will give one example that this report outline that could be a direct tie to how tribes could get paid back from this: the Interior Department's report said that the federal government during the period of boarding school era was using Indian Trust Fund money to pay schools, including churches that ran schools, to take these students in. So ultimately, Native Americans were paying for the abuse of their own children.

KUNM: Do they know how much the government spent?

GRISWOLD: You know, that's unclear at this moment. But it seems that this went on for generations, perhaps throughout the entire period of the boarding school era.

KUNM: And people have been calling for respectful handling of a boarding school gravesite that's under a city park here in Albuquerque. You followed that story closely. Did you hear anything from the Interior Department that could potentially have an impact here in New Mexico?

GRISWOLD: So one thing they mentioned in regards to the 53 graves that were found and identified, the Interior Department will not publicly release the location of these. There's concern about grave robbing or desecration of sites, which has been in the approach that we've seen over here in Albuquerque in terms of the 4-H Park. The city, here in Albuquerque, put fences around the burial site. It's now illegal to actually enter it and it's considered trespassing if you do. But there wasn't anything explicit about the gravesite itself. One thing that will impact every single Indigenous person about today's announcement is the effort to provide mental health resources as well as healing, spiritual and through hospitals, for people who are going to be confronting this reality — some for the very first time.

KUNM: Did the officials talk about whether it's really possible for the U.S. government to be part of healing the wounds and fixing the problems that it created?

GRISWOLD: You know, that's going to be a very important piece of what's next. The Interior Department has plans to do a listening tour across the country, visiting the communities and the sites where these schools took place. There is an acknowledgement that it could be difficult for some community members to actually trust and talk to the government, the same group of people that has not only neglected the obligations of treaties, but also is the perpetrator of this atrocious history.

KUNM: The boarding schools touch so many people's families and communities. What do you think might be coming up for people as the full scope of this investigation is discussed?

GRISWOLD: This is difficult for many people. And I can speak from my own personal experience. I attended a boarding school when I was in middle school, I have family members that attended boarding schools when it was a much harsher experience for them. And I have family members that have passed who also won't be able to speak about their experience. Another thing that I think I connected with, and with Secretary Haaland, was the loss of language and culture. She said she doesn't know her language because her mother was afraid to share that. I don't know my traditional languages, as well. And this shows the lineage of direct conflict and that genocidal practices that the United States was doing when it came to boarding school history is affecting us until this day. And so we're going to learn more about what this is going to do for us.

Read Shaun's latest story for Source New Mexico here: Interior Department report details the brutality of federal Indian boarding schools.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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