US Indian boarding school report reveals horrific treatment of Indigenous children

  • The first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools has identified more than 500 student deaths at the institutions
  • Some of the abuse children experienced included ‘solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing’
Agence France-Presse |

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A makeshift memorial for dozens of Indigenous children who died more than a century ago while attending a boarding school at a public park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo: AP

More than 500 Native American children died in US government-run boarding schools at which students were physically abused and denied food, a report from the Department of the Interior said Wednesday.

“Around 19 Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian child deaths,” said the report, which followed an investigation ordered after similar abuses in Canada sparked widespread outrage last summer.

“The Department expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands,” it said.

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There are marked or unmarked burial sites at more than 50 locations, out of a total of more than 400 that made up the Federal Indian boarding school system between 1819 and 1969, according to the report. It describes abusive punishments imposed at the schools, but does not specifically link them to the deaths.

“Federal Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children,” the report said.

Children in the boarding school system were not only abused, but taught skills that ill-prepared them for life after graduation.

The former Rapid City Indian School, in Rapid City, South Dakota which was opened in the late 1800s and shut down in 1933 before being converted into an asylum and a hospital, and now operates as an Indian Health Service clinic. Photo: AP

The system “focused on manual labour and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial US economy, further disrupting Tribal economies,” the report said.

A statement released along with the report said the school system had the “twin goals of cultural assimilation and territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children.”

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who ordered the investigation that led to the report, condemned the traumatic impact on Native Americans that the boarding school system caused.

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies – including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as four years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said in the statement.

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Deborah Parker, of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, highlighted the devastating long-term consequences of the schools.

“After generations, we still do not know how many children attended. How many children died … how many children were permanently scarred for life because of these federal institutions,” Parker told a news conference.

“Our children deserve to be found, our children deserve to be brought home. We are here for their justice. And we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children,” she added.

Red painted handprints cover the empty spot at a park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a historical marker for the Indigenous children who died while attending a boarding school nearby was removed. Photo: AP

Canada is also grappling with the legacy of abuse and neglect at its schools for Indigenous children.

Thousands died at the schools, and many were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, according to an investigative commission that concluded the Canadian government engaged in “cultural genocide.”

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