New report finds another 115 Indigenous boarding schools, most run by missionaries
Oklahoma had 95 boarding schools, the most in the country
Boarding school in 1885 in Albuquerque, N.M. Such schools are part of a long history of the United States government taking Indigenous children from their homes. (Photo from the National Archives/Public Domain)
From the remote parts of northern Alaska to the coastal edges of Florida, Native American Boarding Schools were set up in or near tribal nations to assimilate Indigenous children into white, Christian, American society.
The legacy of the federal Indian boarding school system is not new to Indigenous people. For generations, Indigenous people across the country have experienced the loss of their culture, traditions, language and land at the hands of federal boarding schools.
In 2022, the Department of Interior released a report identifying 408 Native American boarding schools operated, funded, or supported by the United States government.
This report was the first time a federal entity provided a detailed glimpse into the extent of Native American boarding school history across the US.
However, there are more schools, not federally supported but operated instead by church institutions, that still worked to assimilate Indigenous children.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has spent years researching extensively to identify an additional 115 boarding schools that carried out U.S. policies meant to assimilate Indigenous children.
“It wasn’t just the federal government that did this. Of course, the federal government had a huge part, but it was also Christian missionaries who often did not have funding or support from the federal government.”
– Samuel Torres, NABS deputy CEO
“We anticipate there will be more,” NABS Deputy CEO Dr. Samuel Torres said in an interview with the Arizona Mirror.
NABS’s research brings the total number of schools to 523, making it the most extensive known list of schools to date that encompasses Native American boarding schools.
In Arizona, the number of boarding schools is 59, the second highest in the country, behind Oklahoma’s 95. Neighboring New Mexico had 52. In the list published by the U.S. Department of Interior, Arizona had 48 boarding schools, and the NABS list adds 11.
Torres said NABS’s mission is not just to hold those institutions accountable that were federally supported, operated, or funded but all of the institutions that worked in that timeline to assimilate Indigenous children.
“It wasn’t just the federal government that did this. Of course, the federal government had a huge part, but it was also Christian missionaries who often did not have funding or support from the federal government,” Torres said.
He added that it’s vital for people to recognize that these religious institutions benefited from the same Native American policy decisions made by the federal government and other Native American agencies across the country.
“The end goal was largely much the same,” Torres said. “It was the cultural reprogramming of Native children. It was the intention to strip Native people of language, culture, tradition and ties to the land. That part can’t be overstated.”
Director of Research and Education for NABS Deidre Whiteman who agreed with Torres, said that NABS’s mission is about truth and justice, and in doing so, they can’t leave anyone out.
“We can’t sugarcoat (it),” Whiteman said because all these schools had a mission to remove Indigenous children from their homes and assimilate them.
Parker said that all Indigenous people and their communities were affected by Native American boarding schools, whether they were federally funded or not.
“It’s not just one entity that was responsible,” Whiteman added. “It was multiple agencies, organizations and institutions, and the federal government who implemented these schools.”
‘This work is necessary’
To add some perspective to the sheer amount of schools across the country, NABS developed an interactive digital map in partnership with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada (NCTR),
“NCTR is honored to partner with NABS to expand the international research of these assimilative institutions,” said Jessie Boiteau, the senior archivist for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Through this digital map, we are not just capturing history,” Boiteau added. “We have created a tool that can be used today to impact what happens in the future.”
The NCTR is an organization that documents Canada’s First Nations people’s experiences with the residential schools established in Canada.
“We’re eager to be able to allow folks new and intimate ways of interacting with this information that has for generations been swept under the rug by settler state politics, culture, and society,” Torres said. “It has largely been the philosophy of U.S. exceptionalism to just forget about those uncomfortable instances of history.”
The interactive digital map provides information and locations for all 523 known Native American boarding schools in the US, alongside the known Indian Residential Schools established across Canada.
“We are here strongly demanding that we don’t forget, as a society, that this happened to our relatives, to this land, and it is a, for better or for worse, a historical instance that connects everyone that calls these lands home,” Torres said. “It’s a responsibility for every person, Native and non-Native, to play a part in some way towards the restoration of that which was disrupted.”
According to NABS, the map can demonstrate an international scope and context geographically for the first time. Users can find the locations and general information about all 523 schools, including known dates, operators, and historical notes.
“I believe this tool is going to greatly help our relatives who are seeking answers and who are on their own healing journeys,” Torres said in a press release announcing the launch of the map.
“Every Indigenous person in this country has been impacted by the deliberate attempt to destroy Native families and cultures through boarding schools,” he added. “For us to visually see the scope of what was done to our communities and Nations at this scale is overwhelming, but this work is necessary to uncover the truth about this dark chapter in American history.”
Whiteman said that the release of NABS’s latest findings for schools and the interactive map is an essential resource for future research conducted around boarding schools.
“Researchers, educators, and policymakers now have a place to start to inform understanding and future change,” she added.
Torres said when it comes to information surrounding the boarding school policies and era, a lot of it is being interpreted as abject violence, physical violence, epistemic violence and sexual and psychological violence that is commonly associated with boarding schools.
That treatment did occur, but Torres said it’s important people recognize that Indigenous people did not just accept it.
“There was resistance, and there’s been generations of resistance,” Torres said, noting that there were Native leaders who stood up against this treatment to demand educational sovereignty.
This is why there are still Native American boarding schools across the U.S., though they are drastically different from their predecessors. It is also why NABS notes in their list of schools that boarding schools are still in operation.
“They were started as these places of assimilation, these places of cultural genocide, but now they’ve shifted into something different,” Parker said.
Torres said that many schools now include Indigenous languages, science, and traditional knowledge in their education process.
“It’s important to recognize that the resistance required to transform those institutions to places of redeeming an education process for Native families, communities, and nations has taken place and does not exist in a vacuum,” Torres added.
DOI launches oral history project
In an effort to preserve the history behind the federal Indian boarding school legacy, the Department of Interior launched an oral history project in September.
“Creating a permanent oral history collection about the federal Indian boarding school system is part of the Department’s mission to honor its political, trust and legal responsibilities and commitments to Tribes,” Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said in a press release.
The project is part of the Department of Interiors Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and will be the first of its kind to be undertaken by the federal government.
The oral history project will be led by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which will work to document and make accessible the experiences of the generations of Indigenous children who attended the federal boarding schools.
“The U.S. government has never before collected the experiences of boarding school survivors, which Tribes have long advocated for to memorialize the experiences of their citizens who attended federal boarding schools,” Haaland said. “This is a significant step in our efforts to help communities heal and to tell the full story of America.”
NABS will receive $3.7 million in grant funding to support the oral history project.
“This historic project is a lifeline to preserving the voices and memories of Indian boarding school survivors,” NABS CEO Deborah Parker said. “Many of our ancestors did not have the chance to share their experiences.”
Parker said that NABS is grateful to Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior for this support, and the work through this oral history project will allow NABS to continue their work “in seeking truth and justice, ensuring survivor’s stories are never forgotten, and bringing healing to future generations.”
NABS intends to start conducting video interviews with boarding school survivors across the United States this fall and will release a full schedule with details for Indigenous survivors interested in participating.
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