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Reckoning with the theft of Native American children

Deb Haaland is investigating the history of hundreds of boarding schools that tried to “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Native American girls from the Omaha tribe at Carlisle School, Pennsylvania, circa 1876.
Corbis via Getty Images

Last month, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced that she will lead a national investigation into the more than 365 American Indian boarding schools that forced Native children to “assimilate” to American culture. Between 1869 and 1978, the federal government removed hundreds of thousands of Native children from their families and placed them in schools where they were stripped of their language, subjected to harsh punishments, and forced to adopt Christianity and its values.

By 1926, nearly 83 percent of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools across the country.

Haaland’s investigation into the “generational impact” of these schools comes as children’s remains were recently found at former boarding school sites in Canada — the Cowessess First Nation found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former school in Saskatchewan; the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation found the remains of more than 200 people, mostly children, at another school in British Columbia. In the US this month, the remains of nine children from the Carlisle Indian School, the notorious Pennsylvania boarding school that housed some 10,000 students, were finally returned to their South Dakota tribe.

Haaland, whose grandparents were taken from their families as children and placed into these schools, sees the investigation as an opportunity to uncover history at a time when some in America want to reckon with the truth of our country’s institutions and others want to obscure it. “To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.

Whether Haaland’s investigation will be able to bring healing to Native American families that have suffered as a result of the US government’s forced displacement is left to be seen. “As a Native person who’s grown up in the system, I don’t know what the secretary of the interior can do to give me my life back,” Jacki Thompson Rand, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told Vox. “But it’s a start.”

Thompson Rand talked to Vox about America’s tragic boarding school history, its irreparable harm to Native families, and the promise she sees in Haaland’s announcement. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

Many people are saying Haaland’s investigation is a first step toward actually reckoning with a washed-over history in the US — how the federal government took Native American children away from their families and forced them into boarding schools. What’s your reaction to that?

Jacki Thompson Rand

What Haaland is doing right now is focusing on the tangible — can we find children’s graves? And that’s completely laudable. It’s sort of an obvious first step, especially since the Indigenous communities in Canada have taken it upon themselves to find these graves. No one did it for them. They are doing it with their own equipment and labor, going around these old schools and using ground-penetrating radar and making these discoveries by themselves.

In the US, Haaland is going to scoop up all the federal records related to the boarding schools and start going through those, and they’ll be very revealing. They will tell us a lot more than even someone like myself knows. But it will also show us a picture of US-Indian relations in the late 19th century at a particular time as United States-Indian policy enters the phase of assimilation.

US-Indian relations was first about removal, then it was about the Plains Wars in the 19th century [the series of conflicts between Native Americans and the US over control of land], then it was about creating reservations, which were horrible places. And then it was about starting the assimilation policy, a period which continued into the 20th century. “Starving the Indian to save the man,” as Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School, said.

Assimilation is sometimes used by non-Native people in a benign sense. But when you’re talking about destroying people, identity, and cultural practices to somehow absorb them into white society, nothing seems benign about that.

Fabiola Cineas

A key part of the country’s assimilation policy for Native Americans was stealing kids and placing them in boarding schools. What kinds of conditions did the children face at these schools?

Jacki Thompson Rand

I know from studying this and from my family’s oral history that there were all kinds of violence taking place against these children. My mother and her siblings came from a family of Choctaw speakers. But in her generation, the language was lost because within the walls of the boarding school you were prevented from speaking your language. There’s sexual abuse. Violence by children upon children was encouraged. I know specifically of an instance where a boy in one of the boys’ schools was made to run a gauntlet composed of other boys. So you can just imagine what this did to their mental health — the punishment, the shaming — and if you were a child who had any spirit at all, they made it their business to take it right out of you.

Fabiola Cineas

The remains of thousands of children have been found at the sites where these schools existed. Most recently, remains have been found in Canada, but remains have been found at the sites of US schools as well. Why were children buried at the boarding schools to begin with?

Jacki Thompson Rand

Illness was one thing. And I’m totally not on firm ground here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some suicides happening. The forms of punishment were so extreme that you can imagine children died as a result. For example, at Hampton Institute in Virginia, which was kind of the first Indian boarding school (though they don’t call it this because it was established for free Black students), they used to punish children by putting them in the basement in isolation.

I think the record would show that these schools weren’t receiving sufficient resources for the children. I can imagine children going hungry, children not getting medical care, and children suffering really unspeakable consequences of sexual abuse. I can imagine children being killed.

Children weren’t always on school grounds, either. They had something called a “letting out.” In the summertime, they would farm children out to white households and boys out to workplaces. They would be in the hands of other people without any kind of accountability as free labor. Girls would work in the house as servants and domestic help; boys would work in some kind of work environment like farming where they’re not being protected in any way. They were exposed to lots of vulnerabilities. And remember, the whole time they really are being taught that being Native was a source of shame.

Fabiola Cineas

Can you speak to how global this is?

Jacki Thompson Rand

To paint a global picture, this whole boarding school thing was repeated in Australia to the Aborigines, in Canada, and in New Zealand with the Māori. It’s kind of like the colonialist playbook. But I think what I would say is that, as people have cited, the Native suicide rate is really high. It’s astronomical across all the different populations.

Mental health issues are very big in our community. People like to talk about alcohol, but actually there’s a really strong wave of sobriety in Native communities now. When I look at these suicide figures, though, I see historical continuity. I don’t see it as a manifestation of something modern. I see it as something that’s a manifestation of deep historical trauma.

People need to make the connection. This isn’t some kind of isolated history chapter — that it happened and now it’s better. It’s not better. We’re all still paying for it. But you can see that the pattern over time is disappearing Native people; they’re disappearing our nations. It’s literally a physical intervention in our population to break us up and damage tribal nations.

Fabiola Cineas

Is America ready to hear about what Haaland finds?

Jacki Thompson Rand

What Haaland finds will be a history lesson for people who don’t know it yet. This will be a history lesson about how the United States took Native people’s land. How they destroyed or attempted to destroy their autonomy, including political autonomy, and made the effort to destroy their culture. What could be more basic than to take the children? What could be more harmful than taking the children?

Sometimes people will say to me, “Oh, my god, I didn’t know this happened in our country.” Well, this is what colonialism is. This is what it takes to subdue a people. And this is what it takes to carry out ethnocide. This is what it takes to take hold of a territory.

Haaland’s plan is a starting point. But as a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who has grown up in the system, I don’t know what the secretary of the interior could do to give me my life back. My mother and her siblings are from Oklahoma and were all taken from their family and placed into the boarding school system starting in the late 1920s, and they remained there throughout their childhood.

I don’t know what anyone could do to have given my mother her life back. She died. In fact, all her siblings are dead now. When my cousins and I get together, we still have conversations about these three siblings and the really deep sadness that they all carried and how much we wanted things to be different for them. We tried to give our parents happiness and wellness. We all tried really hard to make them proud of us.

Fabiola Cineas

That hits really hard, this idea that the government that inflicted harm upon your community can’t undo the terror they caused.

Jacki Thompson Rand

Yeah, and there’s a deeply embedded resistance to this story or to having any kind of accountability for it. We have never received a full-on no-equivocation serious apology for all the destruction that came from establishing the United States. By the end of the 19th century, there were 250,000 Native people left in this country. If that isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is.

We have never even had a profoundly serious acknowledgment that the United States is built on stolen land and the free labor of Black people. This little capitalist miracle would not have taken off without free labor and free land.

I was not really supposed to be here. But all along the way I’ve had access to resources — because by crazy circumstances I was able to go to college and then get a PhD. But many Native people don’t have that. There’s this idea that you “stay stuck.” You feel stuck and you try to figure out where you can get help. I can relate to that.

Fabiola Cineas

You told me about you, your mother, her siblings, your tribe. How does what they experienced impact you and your children? How does this trauma continue to show up?

Jacki Thompson Rand

I was reading a news article about the graves found in Canada in which someone commented that “everybody pays for this.” And that’s true because these children were institutionalized and they weren’t shown how to have fully human relationships. They didn’t have models for adulthood or for parenting. When they took children from a family, they frequently split them up between schools, as in the case of my mother and her siblings. The impact was really quite devastating.

The damage was profound, and it shows up in different ways. They get on with their lives — they have accomplishments and they get things done — but there’s also fallout. In my mom’s case, severe alcoholism and mental health issues. But then at the same time, my Uncle Tony became a Marine and he served in three wars. He was a highly respected person. And my Aunt Rosalie remained in Oklahoma and raised her family in severe poverty.

They all have different stories, but I think to answer that question of how do you come back — it’s through the next generation. Their children experienced being reared by people who were not taught how to be parents, neither in the traditional way or in any kind of healthy way. That’s why we talk about intergenerational trauma. We were raised by people who are fundamentally injured and carry that forward.

We, the children, come to the realization that we don’t have to be ashamed to be American Indians. We know that there’s something wrong. We learn our histories and see that what our family is going through is about something bigger. It is a part of history and a long emotional and psychological journey that we can see in retrospect. Ultimately, we come to understand the context in which our parents were injured and come to a place where it’s more about forgiveness and compassion for our parents, each other, and ourselves.

Fabiola Cineas

Is there anything bringing you hope right now and making you feel like we’re moving in the right direction?

Jacki Thompson Rand

Oh, yeah. I look at Native people of a certain age now, and I can see how my experiences as a child are not the experiences that these young Native people have. The politics of the younger people sometimes don’t entirely match up with my sensibilities — and that’s not at all a criticism; there is so much political action among Indigenous students, Indigenous young people.

More and more of us are getting college degrees and going into various fields, and we carry our indigeneity into those fields. We’re starting to have people in Congress and in state politics. Our tribes are just much more savvy than the tribes of even 50 years ago. They’ve learned a lot since the era of self-determination [the process in which Native people formed their own governments], which started in the late 1960s.

All of these things are very complicated because you’re working with US institutions. It’s hard to be very optimistic about anything that comes out of Washington right now because of the state of our politics. I hope the government will recognize the significance of these boarding schools in the history of American Indian communities, but also in the history of US-Indian affairs.

What I’m really all about right now is changing the national narrative to one that helps us understand the United States in a fuller way. Let’s move away from this valorous story of nation-building to one that takes in everything. Let’s get rid of feel-good stories that gloss over all the pain, tragedy, exploitation, and destruction. I’m here to tell you that students can take it.