Tears and talk of reparations
Interior Department's boarding school report gets U.S. government one step closer to looking at reconciliation.
WASHINGTON — In an emotion-laden press conference yesterday, Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) presented a new 102-page report by the agency, which finds that there were 408 assimilation-focused boarding schools run and/or supported by the U.S. government. (89 additional ones received no federal funding.)
Hundreds of associated deaths and much more rampant abuse of children were part and parcel. Deaths could ultimately have ranged in the thousands to tens of thousands, according to the report. Of note:
“Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment, such as solitary confinement, ‘flogging, withholding food, … whipping’ and ‘slapping, or cuffing.’”
Mental, intergenerational trauma.
Marked or unmarked burial sites exist at 53 such institutions.
There were 76 institutions in Oklahoma alone, 47 in Arizona and 43 in New Mexico.
A second report will be issued by Interior in the next year, with more details and updates.
The report was covered extensively in mainstream media and on social media.
The U.S. Congress is expected to soon take action, with a first hearing scheduled in the House for today on the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. The Senate has yet to schedule a hearing. The bill is sponsored in the House by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a close friend of Haaland. It will be interesting to learn whether Native-supporting Republicans, of which there are many, support or oppose the bill, as they realize it could lead to questions of reparations, although it doesn’t specifically say anything about them. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, supports it, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has introduced it in the Senate. When Haaland previously served in the Congress as a U.S. representative from New Mexico, this was her legislation.
Follow the money: Congress gave Interior $7 million to do this initial report. How much more is it willing to give if it passes the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act? How will it ensure that such repatriation money — if it is to be given — is divided fairly and equitably to people who lost family members? All of Indian Country, one could argue, has been vastly and negatively impacted. Fair and equitable funding formulas were a problem under the congressionally-authorized Cobell settlement during the Obama administration. They were a problem with pandemic and other settlement funding under the Trump and Biden administrations. How will Congress try to circumvent a similar problem this time?
Editor’s note: It’s difficult for some Native people to watch this topic gain mainstream attention and be dissected in the press, Congress and by ignorant people because Native people have known about this issue for years. Some Native people have known it their whole lives, based on familial experiences. It is a unique experience to have the world watching and learning about a deep, dark — yet open, too — secret of America. And then to publicly debate the ramifications and whether reparations are in order. It seems likely that Natives are going to be called upon quite frequently in the coming years to tell their boarding school stories. This will be a relief to some. To others, it will be a burden.
Bottom line: Natives want their families not to have been mistreated and killed. There is no way to put a price on that.
While many Indigenous Americans and Canadians and Australians know a lot about boarding schools — because their families were forced to attend them — the mainstream, with non-Native roots, knows less.
Some people, who want to forget this part of American history — or not to learn about it at all — ask why the federal government should be helping American Indigenous citizens gather evidence that shows the mistreatment of their peoples on a mass scale by the government and by Christian churches.
Some people, who want America to make up for its “sins of the past,” are celebrating this report, because they hope it will lead to better enlightenment, justice and perhaps reparations for families of peoples who were forced to attend boarding schools.
In depth: The idea of reparations was immediately on the minds of two of the mainstream reporters who were selected to ask questions at the press conference, who tried to get Haaland and Newland to go on the record about whether they support reparations.
Because they work in top political positions for the federal government, and they do not have permission to say they support reparations, neither Haaland or Newland would say that they do support them (which they probably personally do). Haaland said that the Biden administration is taking an “all-of-government” approach to the issue, and Newland said the current report is just a step in this process and that future reports would follow.
When specifically asked if she has discussed boarding schools with President Joe Biden, Haaland did not answer affirmatively, only answering that the White House in general is aware of and is supportive of her investigation. Which is not surprising, to some observers who say it’s a bigger surprise, frankly, that she hasn’t talked about boarding schools personally with Biden, since she has made dealing with them one of her main legacy items.
More: While Newland wrote the report, the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration spent the the last 11 months doing the research that underlies it, according to Interior officials. That should be of interest to anyone who thinks the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration solely provides banking/investment services to Native beneficiaries who earn royalty income and other monies from activities on federally-managed land. In reality, the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration also “maintains the official archive of American Indian Records,” according to its website. “This program safeguards millions of original, historic documents that detail the Federal government’s treaty obligations to Native Americans.”
The Bureau of Trust Funds Administration took over in 2020 the fiduciary duties previously managed by the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. That office was created as a result of the Cobell trust mismanagement litigation in 1994 “to improve the accountability and management of Indian assets through oversight, reform, and coordination of Federal policy.”
It is a surprise, to some, that this office at Interior has been placed in charge of collecting boarding school records, since it is traditionally thought of as a place dealing exclusively with federal Indian trust fund management. The office was not always trusted by Indians in the past to do a good job at collecting and maintaining Indian trust records, so scrutiny of its current rapid collection of boarding school records should be expected.
Questions: How do the “sins of the past” continue on today in the operations of the federal government, way beyond boarding schools, but still connected to paternalistic, assimilation-based ideologies? When the Treasury Department chooses to poorly consult with tribes on billions of dollars in pandemic relief, resulting in inequitable distributions to tribes, is that another kind of sin — of the present? What about lacking consultation on infrastructure development, including pipelines?
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