Chuck Hoskin Jr.

Chuck Hoskin Jr.

OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal report confirmed what Cherokee and other Native American families say they have long known — the federal government used boarding schools to “erode the unique cultural identities and languages” of Native American people, the tribe’s chief said Wednesday.

The report, released Wednesday by the Department of the Interior, painted a bleak picture of the federal government’s Indian Boarding School initiative, which operated for 150 years.

Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. operated 408 schools in 37 states. Oklahoma had the greatest concentration with 76 — or 19% — of the nation’s total, the investigation found. Arizona, with 47, and New Mexico, with 43, had the second- and third-highest concentrations. Hundreds of Native and Alaskan children were sent from other states to Oklahoma boarding schools, the report notes.

Often run by religious institutions, the report acknowledges that care for children was “grossly inadequate.”

Hundreds of children didn’t return home alive, and often were buried in unmarked graves or poorly maintained cemeteries far from their tribes. The deaths led to the destruction of tribes and families. Survivors, meanwhile, lived with their experiences, which often included physical, sexual and emotional abuse, disease, malnourishment, overcrowding and a lack of health care.

The investigation found that 19 of the 408 boarding schools accounted for more than 500 child deaths, but as the investigation continues, federal officials expect the death toll to be in thousands or tens of thousands. The Department also has identified at last 53 different burial sites, though it wouldn’t say where to protect against “well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”

Children sometimes were beaten, whipped, flogged, cuffed, slapped and locked in solitary confinement. Organizers attempted to assimilate the children by changing their names, cutting their hair and discouraging the use of Native American languages, religions and cultural practices. Youth were required to perform military drills and manual labor such as raising livestock and poultry, making bricks and working on the railroad.

To force tribal participation, in 1893 Congress permitted the then-Interior secretary to withhold rations to Indian families whose children did not attend schools, the report found.

The investigation also found the United States may have used tribal trust account funds to pay for enforced federal boarding school attendance.

“Indian boarding schools are one of the most significant untold stories from the dark periods of history between the United States and Native Americans,” the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said in a statement Wednesday. “We applaud Secretary (Deb) Haaland for her efforts to uncover the truth about these institutions and to create an opportunity for healing. We know this report is just the first step and look forward to continued federal efforts to complete the record.”

The long-anticipated report followed a June 22, 2021, order from Haaland, the current Interior Secretary, to investigate the school system with a particular focus on the locations of the schools, burial sites and identification of children who attended them.

“Oklahoma was home to many boarding schools where our Cherokee people, and citizens of other tribal nations, were forced to live and assimilate,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation principal chief. “We applaud Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary (Bryan) Newland for the Interior’s ongoing investigation and the new $7 million investment from Congress to assist in helping the United States identify its next steps. It will take all of us having this difficult, but necessary, discussion to plot a path forward and ensure the federal government upholds its responsibilities for all of Indian Country.”

In 1872, the Cherokee began laying the groundwork to open the Sequoyah school to support and educate orphaned native youth.

The federal government later purchased the school and ran it as a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school for decades, the tribe said. The Cherokee Nation didn’t regain control of it until 1984. Today it operates as a high school, serving Cherokee citizens and members of 42 other tribes. The school is not mentioned in the report.

While the federal takeover of the school contributed to the loss of the Native language, many children lived and thrived at Sequoyah with the oversight of the tribe, Cherokee officials said.

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Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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