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Indian boarding school investigation faces hurdles in missing records, legal questions

“The hard part is investigating the land and understanding what that boarding school did,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit cultural group, and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. Thousands of children “lived, worked and died” in these schools, “far away from their own homes,” O’Loughlin said. “And time has passed.”

Canada offers a grim preview of what the Interior Department’s investigation might find: In the last month, the mass graves of more than 1,500 children have been found on the grounds of seven former residential schools in Canada. The staggering number of stolen children found at just those few institutions hints at the magnitude of what is to come as more grounds are investigated and more tribes locate their lost.

In the U.S., the investigation announced last month by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the first Indigenous person to lead a Cabinet agency, aims to determine the scope and impact of the country’s Indian Boarding School Policy. The investigation seeks to gather information on the decades of institutionalized, federally funded cultural assimilation that has led to a host of negative outcomes for survivors and their families, from mental health issues to the loss of entire communal generations.

Tribes are bracing for a reckoning that many see as long overdue.

“The truth needs to be heard from the perspective of those who were harmed,” said Christine McCleave, the CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation. “There needs to be some element of justice or transformation when assessing the impacts and the harms and the damage that was done and how to restore things that were taken or broken.”

People gather and shoes are left in Edmonton, Alberta, on May 31 in recognition of the discovery of more than 200 children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Jason Franson / AP file

The endeavor acknowledges a truth Indigenous peoples across North America have known for generations: that the governments of Canada and the U.S. didn’t just take the culture of the Indigenous children that both countries attempted to assimilate through boarding schools. In countless cases, they also took these children’s lives, each one representing a stolen generation.

Indian boarding school survivors’ experiences — oral histories collected by nonprofits in recent decades — have documented rampant instances of sexual and physical abuse, psychological trauma and deaths of children in facilities run by churches and the federal government. In some instances, children died from sickness, according to government documents, but survivors allege that there were other deaths due to abuse and neglect that schools did not report.

Stories of children being beaten for speaking their language, having their heads shaved and being forced to use the Bible as a way to understand how their culture was “barbaric” have been passed down through generations of Indigenous families. In many cases, the abuse caused survivors to sever their ties with their Native culture and history altogether.

The schools were part of a broader push to erase Indigenous cultures, a step in the colonization of North America. The United Nations definition of genocide includes “forcibly transferring” the children of one group to another group.

Gravestones of Native Americans, including children, who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.Carol M. Highsmith / via Library of Congress

But any national reckoning on the atrocities won’t happen easily. Researchers and tribal leaders say that not only did the government try for decades to cover its tracks, but shortcomings in federal law raise serious concerns about how tribal nations will repatriate the remains of their lost children.

Barely more than a third of the government records for Indian boarding schools that operated in the U.S. have been located, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a truth and reconciliation process for the survivors of Indian boarding schools. Many documents were intentionally destroyed, while others exist in university archives and other historical collections, making finding them labor-intensive, especially for tribes that lack the research staff.

The Interior’s investigation will seek to identify the children who did not return home from boarding schools and their tribal affiliations, giving tribal nations an opportunity to not only understand the impact on their communities, but to also begin the process of repatriation.

Even if the Interior’s investigation manages to find records for most of the missing children, federal law makes finding their remains and bringing them home another problem entirely.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law, was passed in 1990 to stop the theft of cultural artifacts and human remains from graves and burial and community sites. But the law was designed to regulate theft by universities, museums and collectors, not to address the government’s role in genocide, or the legal pathway to healing.

Not only does the law have no provisions for the protection of unmarked graves, like the ones being uncovered in Canada and the U.S. — it also has no mechanism to require private landowners (like the Roman Catholic Church, which still owns many of the former boarding school sites) to cooperate with tribes or federal authorities in the repatriation of remains.

“There has to be legislation that applies equally, regardless of who owns the property that those children are buried on,” said O’Loughlin, of the Association on American Indian Affairs. “I don’t care if the church owns it, or Walmart or the feds. It should all be treated the same.”

In the absence of a federal law governing Native American remains on state or privately owned land, state laws will govern the path forward. One of the major concerns, O’Loughlin said, is that many states do not have laws regulating the discovery of unmarked graves.

The U.S. government’s campaign to destroy the cultural identity of Indigenous children and indoctrinate them with Christian beliefs started in 1879 with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and lasted into the 1990s. Over these decades, the Indian Boarding School Policy established 367 schools across the U.S.