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Federal report lays out historic effort to dismantle Indian families and culture

For more than 150 years, the US government pursued an explicit policy of destroying Indian families and culture as the nation took over lands once occupied by Indigenous people.

A primary weapon in that effort was a system of hundreds of Indian boarding schools—21 in Minnesota—that separated children from their parents and sought to assimilate them into the predominantly white, European-oriented US culture of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Those findings are contained in a report released Wednesday by the US Department of the Interior, the first step in an effort to repair the damage longstanding government policies caused to native Indian, Hawaiian and Alaskan people.

Most Native Americans in Minnesota have a history with boarding schools—family members who were forced to go, others who saw them still suffering decades later. Bois Forte Band of Chippewa tribal council member Shane Drift’s grandmother and great-aunt were made to attend the Vermilion Lake Indian School in the 1920s.

“We are still dealing with the effects of boarding schools” from language loss to trauma, he said. “It’s going to take a while to get to the part where we are healed.”

A second report is expected to lay out in more detail the long-term effects of the boarding school system, as well as the amount of federal money spent on it, much of the cash having been taken from trust funds created for the tribes. The second report will include a list of marked and unmarked burial sites of Indian children who died at the schools, a number estimated at more than 500.

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication affected upon generations of children as young as 4 years old, are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said.

“It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

Children taken by force

The report, the result of a yearlong investigation, details for the first time the extent and aims of the Indian boarding school system. There were 408 such schools across the nation from 1819 to 1969, including the 21 schools in 18 Minnesota cities.

“Beginning with President Washington,” the report says, “the stated policy of the federal government was to replace the Indian’s culture with our own. This was considered ‘advisable’ as the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s white inhabitants, of helping the whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon by which these goals were to be accomplished.”

Children were key to the effort. By 1871, federal law compelled Indian parents to send their children to school, under threat of losing food rations or other benefits. Federal agents often forcibly remove children from their homes.

Drift’s aunt was taken first. His grandmother’s parents hid her from her so federal agents could n’t also remove her from her. But eventually they came back for her, he said.

“She never shared what it was like. She would not,” Drift said. But, he said, the experience caused a lifelong inner turmoil, and she turned to alcohol to cope.

Matthew Northrup’s father, author Jim Northrup, was sent to Pipestone Indian Boarding School from the Fond du Lac Reservation, an experience he documented in his work.

“It affected him tremendously,” Matthew Northrup said of his father, who died in 2016. “To be able to survive something like that, it was basically an effort to destroy an individual on a personal and collective level. It’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”

Northrup, who has taught tribal studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, said he tells students, “What you learn about this is going to break your heart,” noting that he believes far more than 500 Native American children died in federal and religious boarding schools.

Heavy church involvement

Melanie Benjamin, chair of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the band hosted a meeting with Minnesota tribes last summer after the discovery of unmarked graves in Canada.

“We were appalled by the horrendous news,” she said, even though so many in Minnesota had family sent to boarding schools. “We all know the stories … where our relatives would be beaten if they spoke the language, cutting off the hair.”

About half the Indian schools were affiliated with religious institutions, with the church either providing funding or receiving funding from the federal government.

Minnesota tribes have sought information from the Catholic Church, which ran some of the schools in the state. Benjamin said they have sought records of the children sent to them, an accounting they still await.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis issued a statement Wednesday expressing “sorrow and shame” for the church’s role in operating the schools.

“The clear teaching of the Catholic Church today is that Indigenous peoples and cultures are to be respected and never harmed or sacrificed in the name of evangelization,” Hebda said.

He called the report “an important first step in what I anticipate will be a painful but necessary journey for our country and for our Church.”

Benjamin said the schools “were trying to strip the identify of these Indian kids — stomp out the fire of their ability to move forward in their way of life.”

“Healing the intergenerational harm done is a very real problem costing our tribes millions a year in programming,” she said, including language recovery and mental health services. “This pain we carry from generation to generation and the social ills we experience—many can be traced back to when these kids were in boarding schools.”

Brenda Child, Northrop Professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of “Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940.” Her grandparents of her were sent to boarding schools, and she said nothing in the report surprised her.

During much of that era, Child said, many Native Americans died of tuberculosis and influenza, with the communal setting of boarding schools allowing disease to spread. She said the report shows the comprehensiveness of the federal system.

“It’s not shocking and not necessarily new information to historians and American Indian Studies scholars,” she said, who “have tried to tell the human stories from the perspectives of Indian people themselves.”

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