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Federal government looks to address the legacy of Indian boarding schools — including in Minnesota

The discovery of mass graves at boarding schools in Canada has forced that nation to face its history with the institutions. It’s also prompting leaders in the U.S. to look at its own history with such schools.

photo of students in classroom
Intermediate students in an Indian boarding school at Beaulieu, Minnesota, ca. 1900.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the remains of over 200 Indigenous children were found in mass graves near boarding schools in British Columbia, Canada was forced to face its history of state-sponsored abuse. In an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children, the Canadian government forcibly sent them to boarding schools where they often faced abuse, neglect and sometimes death. Those who died are largely believed to have suffered malnutrition, disease or neglect. The discovery also prompted American leaders to reexamine a similar dark chapter of U.S. history.

Beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing into the 1970s, Federal Indian Affairs agents forcibly abducted children as young as 4 from their homes and enrolled them in Christian- and government-run boarding schools. The schools’ official purpose was to “Americanize” children by preparing boys for manual labor and farming and girls for domestic work. The schools were meant to sever children’s physical, cultural and spiritual connections to their families and their tribes.

Children who attended the schools often experienced years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

On June 22, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in an address to the National Congress of American Indians during a virtual conference.

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“It’s disheartening to learn more about the 215 unmarked graves that were reported in Canada, but it is now serving to raise awareness and to have the federal government acknowledge what occurred,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “The generations of Navajo people who attended boarding schools can testify to the harsh experiences and some also attest to the strength of our people and their ability to become self-reliant, even under those difficult circumstances.”

Minnesota has its own dark history when it comes to Indian boarding schools. Now, as the U.S. seems poised to re-examine this era in history, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation are backing federal efforts to acknowledge and address the tragic legacy of Indian boarding schools.

History of the boarding schools

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and implemented policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the nation. The purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed. For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities.

Minnesota was one of several states that operated American Indian boarding schools, with at least 16 facilities that drew children from all 11 of the reservations within the state. Two of the larger schools were Morris Indian Boarding School, founded in 1887, and Pipestone Indian School, founded in 1892.

Methods of discipline at Minnesota boarding schools — and schools around the country — were harsh and often inhumane. Some schools had cells or dungeons where students were confined for days and given only bread and water. Minnesota boarding schools recorded epidemics of measles, influenza, blood poisoning, diphtheria, typhoid, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, trachoma and mumps, which swept through overcrowded dormitories. Students also died from accidents such as drowning and falls.

Reports of physical and sexual abuse contributed to the traumatic legacy of these schools.

In 1928, the U.S. government released the Meriam Report, a critical study that presented evidence of malnourishment, insufficient medical services, overcrowding, a reliance on student labor and low teacher standards. The government then began building day schools on reservations to replace the abusive boarding schools. By the end of the 1970s, most boarding schools had shut down. No boarding schools remain open in Minnesota today.

What Congress is doing to address the years of abuse

Last month, Haaland ordered a federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to recover the histories of the institutions, where she said children endured routine injury and abuse. Haaland, a former member of Congress from New Mexico — whose father was from Minnesota —  is the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

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Haaland’s memorandum directs the Interior Department to collect historical records, consult with tribes, and deliver a report by next spring.

“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” Haaland said in remarks to a virtual conference of the National Congress of American Indians when she announced the initiative last month. “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.”

Haaland has her own ties to the schools, and she now leads the agency that was responsible for many of them. She wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that she is “a product of these horrific assimilation policies.” Her own grandparents were taken from their parents as young children.

“They were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13,” she wrote. “Many children like them never made it back home.”

Minnesota Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum is the current vice chair and former chair of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, and serves as one of the Democratic co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus.

“In my roles on the Appropriations Committee and the Native American Caucus, I continue to work for increased funding to restore Native language education, and greater investments in tribal schools and community services that support self-determination and healing,” McCollum said. “I strongly support Secretary Haaland’s establishment of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, and look forward to working with her on these priorities.”

In last year’s Congress, McCollum cosponsored a bill called the Truth and Healing Commission Indian Boarding School Policy Act, which among other activities would study the impacts and ongoing effects of the Indian Boarding School Policy and make recommendations to discontinue the removal of American Indian and Alaska Native children from their families and tribal communities by state social service departments, foster care agencies and adoption agencies.

The bill was introduced by Haaland when she was still a member of Congress last September along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and aides for Warren said she is working with partners and plans to reintroduce the bill in the coming weeks. Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith was also a cosponsor on that bill, but did not respond for comment when asked if she would support the bill on its reintroduction in the current Congress.

There is also a concurrent resolution in Congress “urging the establishment of a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.” Reps. McCollum and Ilhan Omar have cosigned on the House version, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the Senate version. The resolution would “properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress, including toward permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.”

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“I am committed to the work that remains to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma—which means not only confronting the truth of the boarding school era, but also living up to our trust and treaty obligations to support the health, education, and safety of Native Americans,” McCollum said.

Navajo Nation President Nez says that more action is needed.

“Our people were forcefully removed from their homes and families, placed into the boarding school system, and stripped of their identity as Navajo people to assimilate them,” Nez said. “This troubling history deserves more attention to raise awareness and to educate others about the atrocities that our people experienced, so that they can better understand our society today and work together to heal and move forward.”