Report on residential schools is a warning against oppressive education policies

The Department of the Interior released a report on Wednesday detailing aspects of the United States’ horrific history of forcibly assimilating Indigenous children in the 19th and 20th centuries by sending them to federal boarding schools.

According to the report, at least 500 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children have died while in the care of US government-run boarding schools. The department said it expects the death toll to rise as its investigation continues.

The report is just the first volume of findings from the ongoing Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative, a project commissioned by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last June to address “the troubled legacy of federal policies.” on boarding schools. The initiative has already identified over 400 schools and over 50 burial sites.

Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead the Home Office, said in a statement Wednesday:

The consequences of federal policies on Indian residential schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable. We continue to see evidence of this attempted forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples in the disparities communities face.

The findings illustrate nationwide efforts to erase Indigenous culture and force Indigenous groups to assimilate, sometimes through brutal acts of violence. Indigenous children who broke school rules were whipped, starved, whipped, slapped and handcuffed, the report said. Sometimes the older children were forced to punish the younger ones.

Arrival at Sioux Boys School
Sioux boys arrive at the U.S. Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on October 5, 1879.Corbis via Getty Images

Coming at a time when Republicans are pushing educational policies intended to whitewash school lesson plans they deem harmful and unpatriotic, the boarding school report doubles as a warning of what could happen if the Crusade of Ideological Purity right continues. Republican-led legislatures across the country have instituted a wave of restrictive policies banning culturally conscious discussions of social inequality, preferring instead a distorted view of history that almost exclusively portrays the United States in a positive light. .

With that in mind, the purpose behind the initial boarding school report – and the initiative more broadly – ​​seems all the more significant.

In a statement, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said the report “presents an opportunity for us to reorient our federal policies to support the revitalization of tribal languages ​​and cultural practices.”

“This shift in federal policy is necessary to thwart nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at the destruction of tribal languages ​​and cultures,” he continued.

With this report, the Biden administration has provided evidence of how cultural erasure has played out in the past. Depending on its final conclusion and recommendations, it could also be a useful roadmap for the future, showing possible ways to address this erasure.


Amanda J. Marsh