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Burial sites linked to Native American boarding schools ID'd in government report

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

For about a hundred and fifty years, Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent away to what were called Indian schools. Yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the initial findings. From member station WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., Noelle Evans reports.

NOELLE EVANS, BYLINE: The investigation is not complete, but what we know now is that there were more than 400 of these schools across the country until the late 1960s.

CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: This is among the original sins of this country. And the fact that the truth is finally coming to light is deeply emotional and it's important.

EVANS: That's Crystal Echo Hawk. She's a citizen of the Pawnee Nation and executive director of the Native American social justice organization IllumiNative.

ECHO HAWK: Our relatives went to those schools and faced extreme abuse - you know, being beaten, mouths washed out with soap.

EVANS: In a letter, Assistant Secretary of Indigenous Affairs Bryan Newland highlighted some key findings - that the U.S. directly targeted Native American children for cultural assimilation and that this was central to a broader plan to remove Indigenous people from their lands. To this end, systemic, militarized and identity alteration methods were applied in the school system. Echo Hawk calls it disturbing.

ECHO HAWK: This was not just a couple bad apples in schools - that this was a policy, a systematic policy.

EVANS: Students were barred from speaking their native language. Rules were enforced through corporal punishment, solitary confinement and withholding food. Older students were sometimes made to punish younger children. Abuse in all forms was rampant.

Echo Hawk's grandfather was a survivor of the Pawnee Boarding School in Oklahoma. She says he knew the Pawnee language until he didn't. Toward the end of his life, he wrote down some Pawnee words he still remembered. Echo Hawk still holds on to a slip of yellow paper that he'd given her.

ECHO HAWK: And it just seemed like in the last, you know, decade or so of his life, he was really - it was just like he was trying to get the things back that were taken from him.

EVANS: Not every student survived. Through this investigation, about 50 burial sites have been found so far. More than 500 deaths have been accounted for, but the department expects the actual death toll could be in the tens of thousands.

DANTE DESIDERIO: The challenge to the rest of America is when you went to elementary school or middle school or high school, did you have a cemetery for the children that died at the high school?

EVANS: That's Dante Desiderio. He's a citizen of the Sappony Nation and CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.

DESIDERIO: We need those children returned home to their communities, and we also need to recognize this experience. Our fellow classmates died in the schools and were buried out back.

EVANS: Desiderio says this has to be the start of a broader investigation across government agencies to remedy the countless damages caused. And he wants people to recognize that this is not in the past. Across all of Indian country, survivors and their descendants continue to suffer the consequences of a policy that was created to annihilate their way of being.

DESIDERIO: But we don't want to leave the people who've gone through this vulnerable and just have the federal government move on. We can't do that.

EVANS: The investigation will continue with an additional $7,000 from Congress.

For NPR News, I'm Noelle Evans.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say Congress has given $7,000 to continue the investigation. In fact, the amount is $7 million.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "CATALYST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 11, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
In this report, we incorrectly say Congress has given $7,000 to continue the investigation. In fact, the amount is $7 million.
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