‘Our communities are still mourning’: Secretary Haaland announces federal Indian boarding school initiative
Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2021
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The following is a portion of remarks delivered by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year session on June 22, 2021. The transcript here has not been double checked against the recording.

Another issue that is so personal to me is the devastating history of the U.S. government’s boarding school policies. Like many of you was, I was deeply impacted by the news of 215 Indigenous children found in a mass grave at a boarding school in Canada. I couldn’t help but think of their families.

Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose because forced assimilation policy. And did their lives too soon. I thought of my own child who carries this generational trauma with them. I thought of my grandmother who told me about the pain and loneliness she endured when the trains to curl away from her family to boarding school.

I wept with the Indigenous members of our team here at Interior. Our communities are still mourning. The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continued to manifest in the pain our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma cycles of violence and abuse disappearance of Indigenous people, premature deaths, mental disorders, and substance abuse.

But now for the first time, this country has a cabinet secretary who was Indigenous. I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding school. Assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead the same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language, our spiritual practices, and our people. To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.

For more than a century, the Interior Department was responsible for operating the Indian boarding schools across the United States and its territories. We are therefore uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long.

It’s our responsibility. Today I’m announcing and sharing with you all — first — that the department will launch the federal Indian boarding school initiative. At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects.

We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools. This investigation will identify past boarding school facilities and sites, the location of known and possible burial sites located at or near school facilities and the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were taken there.

I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past, can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.

I don’t see it as my role to be the voice for all Native people, but rather to amplify your voices so that American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities have a seat at the table to speak for themselves.

I sitting at this table together, we can build a better relationship for future generations that is not rooted as the worst parts of our past. Thank you for the opportunity to share with you and for the work you do every day to stand up for our people.

Note: Thumbnail photo of Chiricahua Apache students after arrival at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School from Richard Henry Pratt Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University

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