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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday delivered devastating testimony about the US government’s decades-long policy of forcibly removing Native American children from their families and placing them in violent, remote boarding schools designed to assimilate them into the white culture.

“The consequences of federal policies on Indian residential schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by the forced separation of families and cultural eradication – have been inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old and are heartbreaking,” said Haaland to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which held a hearing to consider a first-of-its-kind Home Office investigative report that examines how, exactly, the government implemented its policy of rounding up Indigenous children during all these years.

The report marks the first time in more than 200 years that the United States has officially examined or even acknowledged the scope and extent of its ancient policies aimed at erasing Native American culture, language and people.

The Home Office ran hundreds of these boarding schools from 1819 to 1969 across the country. Tens of thousands of children have suffered numerous psychological, physical and sexual abuses. Some are dead. Others simply disappeared. The purpose of these schools, as the founder of one of the flagship boarding schools, Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, said in 1879, was to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, shared some of the report’s key findings with the committee. The report is part of a larger effort by the Department of the Interior, as well as a legislative effort in Congress, to help bring reconciliation and overdue healing to Indigenous peoples.

The department’s review of federal records found the government was targeting the removal of Indigenous children as part of a broader effort to take land away from tribes. The report also revealed that the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 schools in 37 then-states or territories, including 21 in Alaska and seven in Hawaii.

Additionally, the report revealed that approximately 50% of federal Indian boarding schools may have received money or personnel from a religious institution or organization. Sometimes the federal government paid religious groups to have Indigenous children attend the federal residential schools that these institutions and organizations operated.

“Like all native people, I am the product of these horrific assimilation policies,” Haaland said as he choked. “My grandparents were taken from their families in federal residential schools when they were just 8 years old and forced to live away from their parents…until they were 13.”

“Like all Native Americans, I am a product of these horrible assimilation policies,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

The Secretary of the Interior said investigators have identified at least 53 schools with marked or unmarked burial sites where the bodies of Native American children were laid when they died at school. The report shared at Wednesday’s hearing is Volume 1; the next volume is expected to identify more burial sites and potentially more details about residential school sites, the children who were there, and the dates the facilities were in operation.

Interior Department officials also plan to begin visiting tribal communities and hearing from former residential school survivors and student descendants. The first listening session will take place in Oklahoma, and the department is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to have medical providers on site to help people deal with the trauma they may feel while telling this that they or their family have experienced.

“We work with the tribes to make sure we’re reaching out, so they’re helping us design where to have sessions,” Haaland told the committee. “We want to make sure we document this. If people want to share publicly, they can. We’re going to close this to the public, so if people don’t want to share with the public, they can.

The Secretary of the Interior noted that she had not lost sight of the fact that she now heads the department that once tried to eliminate Native Americans, including her.

“I am in a unique position to deal with the lasting impacts of these policies,” Haaland said. “I now have direct supervision over the very department that managed and oversaw the implementation of the federal Indian boarding school system.”



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