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Senate hears testimony on Indian boarding schools report

Plans to revitalize Native languages and culture were discussed.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary on Wednesday testified in front of a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs describing her own experience with forced assimilation in federal Indian boarding schools.

Her testimony comes six weeks after the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report was released, identifying 408 former institutions used to “exterminate and eradicate” Native people across the U.S.

“As the head of the Department of the Interior, and as the first Native American cabinet secretary, I am in the unique position to address the lasting impacts of these policies,” Sec. Deb Haaland said during her testimony. 

“I now have direct oversight over the very department that operated and oversaw the implication of the federal Indian boarding school system.”

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Wednesday’s Oversight Hearing was a chance for the Senate committee to hear testimony from Haaland and others on the next steps of the investigation, including funding needs, mental health services addressing generational trauma and plans to revitalize Native languages.

The report marks the first time the government has acknowledged the atrocities at the federally-run schools. It’s not clear when Volume II will be released.

The Department of the Interior’s year-long investigation was announced in the summer of 2021 after hundreds of bodies of indigenous children, some as young as 3, were found at similar schools in Canada.

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Arizona was home to 47 of these schools, the second most of any state in the U.S. 

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What’s next?

Haaland told the committee she had not been in contact with her department’s counterpart in Canada who has been coming to terms with the country’s similar Indian boarding school history, 

“You know, before colonization, there was no Canadian-American border,” Haaland said. “There were tribes living on this continent. We are all relatives. We share a history together. We care and love one another.”

RELATED: Canada residential schools: Indigenous tell pope of abuses they suffered at hands of Catholic priests

Haaland said she was “deeply grateful” to Congress for their support and that funding for the initiative will help the department expand existing boarding school profiles including: 

  • Detailing the number of children who attended federal Indian boarding schools
  • Identify marked and unmarked burial sites
  • Identify interred children and detail the amount of federal support for the system

Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called the Indian boarding school era “a dark period in our nation’s history and a painful example of how past federal policies failed American Indians, Alaska natives and native Hawaiians.”

“The federal government supported boarding schools with a primary goal in mind: the [forced] assimilation of Native children into western ways of life,” he said, calling details in the report gut-wrenching.  

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