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Tribal Affairs

Interior Department Launches Initiative On Indigenous Boarding Schools

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Montana Legislature
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Sen. Susan Webber (D-Browning)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this week released plans to address the U.S.’s fraught history with federally run residential schools aimed at assimilating Indigneous children into white Western culture.

The announcement comes a month after a Canadian Indigenous boarding school found a mass grave of 215 children near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. This week 751 more unmarked graves were found outside a residential school in Cowessess, Canada.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, by 1926, 83% of school-aged Indigenous children in the U.S. were attending these boarding schools.

Haaland wrote for the Washington Post an op-ed saying that her own grandfather was sent to the original residential school the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Interior Department will spend the next year quantifying the effect of boarding schools on Indigenous Americans by looking into historical tribal and federal documents on Indigenous boarding schools.

Blackfeet tribal member Susan Webber is a Montana state senator. Webber has studied residential schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Catholic church. She says this issue is a part of Montana’s history.

“We had Willow Creek, we have Cuppings Boarding School, and we had Fort Shaw,” Webber says.

“Truth is ugly but for Native Americans the more truth we have the stronger we’ll be.”

Webber says that while her family faced assimilation in these residential schools in Montana, there is hope in what she calls “dark truths.”

“My mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother, my great grandfather and great grandfather,” Webber says. “Their resilience made me what I am today. You know, I'm a senator.”

Webber says the most important aspect of this new initiative Secretary Haaland is starting is to get the numbers of how many children were lost. Then she says the healing can begin.

Haaland’s press statement says that a report on the initiative's findings will be filed in April of 2022.

Taylar Stagner is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.