Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary, announced last month that her department would investigate “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” That would include seeking to identify the schools and burial sites.
U.S. religious groups were affiliated at least 156 such schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a private group formed in 2012 to raise awareness and address the traumas of the institutions. That’s more than 40% of the 367 schools documented so far by the coalition.
Eighty-four were affiliated with the Catholic Church or its religious orders, such as the Jesuits. The other 72 were affiliated with various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians (21), Quakers (15) and Methodists (12). Most have been closed for decades.
Samuel Torres, director of research and programs for the coalition, said church apologies can be a good start but “there is a lot more to be done” on engaging Indigenous community members and educating the public.
Such information is crucial given how little most Americans know about the schools, he said, both in their impact on Indigenous communities and their role “as an armament toward acquisition of Native lands,” he said.
“Without that truth, then there’s really very limited possibilities of healing,” said Torres, who is a descendant of Mexica/Nahua ancestors, an Indigenous group from present-day Mexico.
Hauff noted that the experiences of former students, such as his own parents, ranged widely. Some said that even amid austerity, loneliness and family separation, they received a good education, made friends, learned skills and freely spoke tribal languages with peers. But others talked of “unspeakable, cruel abuse,” including physical and sexual assault, malnourishment and being punished for speaking Native languages.
“Even if some of the children did say they had a positive experience, it did come at a price,” Hauff said. “Our church worked hand in hand with the government to assimilate these children.”