Excerpted From: Keiteyana I. Parks, Indigenous Boarding Schools in the United States and Canada: Potential Issues and Opportunities for Redress as the United States Government Initiates Formal Investigation, 47 American Indian Law Review 37 (2022-2023) (238 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KeiteyanaParksThe development of the United States as a country is entwined with a legacy of painful efforts to eradicate the cultures and the presence of individuals deemed “improper” for the sake of land and westward expansion. Included in this list of disgraceful efforts is the decades-long work of the federal government to assimilate American Indians into “Western” culture--in many ways quite successfully detaching them from their culture, tradition, and language. Specifically, the Native American boarding schools in the United States were maintained as prominent efforts to strip Native peoples of their land and their culture, to exploit young bodies for labor, and to conform Native American people into the mold and progression of the dominant Christian culture and values of Western civilization. The Indian boarding school era was a significant stride in United States' efforts to assimilate Indigenous people to Western ways such as those that encouraged their participation in capitalism and reliance on individualist lifestyles so much so that the idea of the Indian boarding school institution extended throughout Canada as well. The callous treatment of Native children took place within Indian boarding schools from the late 1800s through the 1970s in both the United States and Canada. While dialogue of the history and trauma of Indian boarding schools has been apparent in Canada, similar discourse regarding the depth and impression that these schools left amongst tribes in the United States seems to be less apparent. However, the recent discovery of mass gravesites surrounding former Indigenous boarding schools in Canada has brought the history of these schools to light.

The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.

Since January 2021, over 1,200 graves have been discovered at former Indigenous boarding school sites in Canada including in Cranbrook, B.C; Kamloops, B.C; Penelakut Island, B.C; and Marieval, Saskatchewan. Native tribes have spoken out in response to these discoveries--specifically, upon the discovery of 215 unmarked graves near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, which operated from 1890 to 1978 under the administration of the Roman Catholic Church. The Kamloops school grew to be the largest of the schools in the Indian Residential School System, reaching peak enrollment in the 1950s at about 500 students. The Canadian government took over the school in 1969 and operated the school as a residence for students who were attending day school. In response to the discovery of the gravesite, the Kamloops Indian Board of Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation “acknowledge[ed] their responsibility to caretake for these lost children.” The Board assured its community that with the “deepest respect and love,” a ceremony would be conducted which “ensured that the work was conducted respectfully in light of the serious nature of the investigation with cultural protocols being upheld.”

Following the discovery at Kamloops, another gravesite containing the graves of as many as 751 people, many estimated to be children, was discovered at the Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan, the largest gravesite discovered to date. The Cowessess First Nation made the unearthing and responded by demanding that the Roman Catholic Church who oversaw the school while it was in operation, and Pope Francis, apologize for the ill treatment of Indigenous students.

While Canada has experienced substantial previous litigation surrounding the Canadian government's history of detrimental treatment towards Indigenous people, the United States has hardly a history of providing adequate redress for its historical brutalities. However, in the wake of the recent discovery at the Kamloops and Marieval Indian Residential Schools, and the large public outcry that resulted, the United States Department of the Interior (the Department) Secretary, Deb Haaland, has committed to investigating the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States. This formal investigation marks a huge effort for the United States to not only recognize its historical wrongs, but also to display a seemingly buried history of disparate treatment towards Native Americans which continues to be felt today. Secretary Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico and is the first Native American cabinet secretary. United States Senator Elizabeth Warren offered her support, stating that it is “long overdue that the federal government reckon with this history and its legacy.” As part of the commitment to investigating the history of these schools in the United States, Warren and Haaland authored the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act with assistance of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which was reintroduced on the National Day of Remembrance for U.S Boarding Schools. The National Native American Boarding School Coalition is the product of leaders from the United States and Canada who saw a need for a process similar to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be established in the United States. Considerably, the National Native American Boarding School Coalition has been a motivating force behind research and education of the history of boarding schools. The purpose of the Truth and Healing Commission is

to formally investigate and document, for the first time in history, cultural genocide, assimilation practices, and human rights violations of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States, to study the impact and ongoing effects of historical and intergenerational trauma in Tribal communities, and to provide a forum for Indigenous victims and families to discuss the personal impacts of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence.

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, is hopeful that the “climate has changed” and is reminded that “in the last year, since the murder of George Floyd, people are more committed now to looking at racism and examining this country's history and examining its policies that were racist or genocidal.” The Coalition supports the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act and calls for a “full accounting of the devastating impacts of the Indian boarding school policies that tore away generations of Native American children form their families and communities.” The creation of this Coalition and the resources that it provides offer a tremendous step forward in acknowledging, learning, and discussing the history of Indigenous people relations and the history of these boarding schools.

The announcement of the reintroduction of the Act and of a formal examination into the history of the Indian boarding schools in the United States was made at the 2021 National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. The initiative may present an opportunity for the United States to initiate means for redress for the government's historical actions and treatment towards Indians. In a memorandum, the Department detailed the proposal to investigate the “loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” The Department further expressed that the discovery should encourage reflection on American history and the past policies of assimilation of Indigenous peoples initiated by the federal government of the United States. It further notes how the assimilationist policies and the legacy of Indian boarding schools manifest today throughout Indigenous communities through intergenerational trauma, abuse, disappearance and premature death. For over a century, the Department was responsible for the operation and oversight of these schools. Therefore, it must “shed light on the traumas of the past.” To do this, it proposes to collect information including enrollment records, maps, and administrative reports but emphasizes the need to discover records of cemeteries or potential burial sites in order to identify “all boarding schools that participated in the program and the students enrolled in each, along with each student's Tribal affiliation” that could be contained in federal repositories and non-governmental operations. Importantly, the Memo also contains initiatives for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to seek consultation from tribal nations, and Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native organizations, to discuss cultural concerns and “proposed sitework.” The importance of this communication with tribal nations cannot be overstated. In September of 2021, the Department announced that it would begin consulting with tribal nations. Specifically, the Department wrote letters inviting “Tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations to provide feedback on key issues for inclusion in the Department's report and help lay the foundation for future site work to protect potential burial sites and other sensitive information.”

The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, noted that the inclusion of the tribes is a “necessary step” to “chart our path forward.” One reason that consultation with tribes is extremely necessary is that the investigation lays bare a difficult and painful history that continues to affect many tribal nations who will continue to bear the impacts and results of the investigation. In the September 30 press release, Secretary Haaland noted that “[t]ribal consultations are at the core of this long and painful process to address the inter-generational trauma of Indian boarding schools and to shed light on the truth in a way that honors those we have lost and those that continue suffer trauma.” In its letters to the tribes, and to Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native organizations, the Department requested that they address a variety of topics including:

• Appropriate protocols on handling sensitive information in existing records;

• Ways to address cultural concerns and handling of information generated from existing records or from potential sitework activities;

• Potential repatriation of human remains, including cultural concerns and compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act;

• Future policy and procedure implementation to protect burial sites, locations, confidential information, and culturally sensitive information;

• Management of sites of former boarding schools;

• Privacy issues or cultural concerns to be identified as part of the Initiative; and

• Other issues the Department should address in its review.

The entire effort was conducted in multiple phases and concluded with the submission of a final written report submitted on April 1, 2022. Proponents are hopeful and believe that Secretary Haaland is in a “pivotal position to uncover potential gravesites in America's Indian boarding schools.”

This Comment explores the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States and Canada, including the differences between these countries' attempts to offer redress for the impact that these schools have had and continue to have on Indian populations. Part II of this Comment will examine the historically intertwined relationship between the United States and Canadian boarding schools. Part III will discuss the effect that these schools have had and continue to have on Indigenous populations. Part IV will compare policies and actions taken in Canada to that of the United States. Lastly, Part V will discuss the potential paths that the United States could take to redress its deleterious history with Indigenous peoples and the obstacles that it could face in its investigation into the former federal Indian boarding schools in the United States.

[. . .]

The Department of the Interior's federal investigation into the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States offers a pronounced step towards uncovering the history and the painful truths of the injustice and violence towards Native Americans and can serve as a foundation to facilitating justice. The investigation is full of hurdles including an extremely lacking record of schools and the numbers of students who have attended and available options for adequate remedies.

The biggest influence that the government's investigation offers is an honest dialogue of its unforgiving history of violence and may as well offer hope for appropriate reconciliation for the families and tribes of former students that continue to carry the burden of its impacts. It seems uncertain what actions may come after the final report, but with the assistance of organizations such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, and the efforts to listen to tribes' cultural concerns regarding the investigation, there is some opportunity for the country to learn and build towards reconciliation.

While no action can wholeheartedly remedy the irreparable harm and trauma that these schools caused to its students, their families, tribes, and decedents, Americans can seek to understand the historical context of these actions, and educate one another, on the history that continues to permeate the lives and livelihood of Indigenous families and tribes today.

Third-year student, University of Oklahoma College of Law.