Indigenous-led nonprofit asks to help federal investigation into abuses at Native American boarding schools

Utah Diné Bikéyah’s entire 11-member board of directors attended boarding schools around the Four Corners as children. Now, they want to help the Interior Department review the federal policies that required hundreds of thousands of Native American children to attend similar schools.

(Wikimedia Commons) Many Native American students from the Navajo Nation and elsewhere attended the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah, between 1950 to 1984.

Bluff • For many Native American residents of San Juan County who were born before 1970, their first trip to elementary school was made with a police escort and some weren’t able to to see their families again for months or even years.

One county resident who serves on the board of directors for the Indigenous-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah recalls watching a police officer twirl handcuffs around his finger as he took two children, ages three and five, from their parents and removed them to a boarding school.

After being threatened with arrest, the parents “cried, argued, wailed and eventually signed the papers to take both siblings away,” according to an account collected in a letter Utah Diné Bikéyah executive director Woody Lee sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week.

The memory of the police officer’s visit is one of dozens of stories shared in the letter, most of which are based on the firsthand experiences of the nonprofit’s 11-member board, all of whom attended boarding schools as children.

Other board members recalled being forced to eat fish, which was prohibited under traditional customs on the Navajo Nation, while others went hungry from the tiny rations served at the facilities. Students who ran away or who were caught speaking the Navajo language had their heads shaved bald, their knuckles wrapped with rulers until they bled, or their mouths washed out with soap.

One teacher at the Shiprock Boarding School in New Mexico carried a two-by-four board with him that he nicknamed “the execution stick” and used to beat students, according to the letter.

The stories were gathered in response to Haaland’s announcement last month that the Interior Department would conduct “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies,” which forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Native American children from their communities for over 150 years.

“The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a statement in June. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, and Utah Diné Bikéyah is offering to aid Interior’s investigation into schools in the Four Corners.

In the letter, Lee encouraged the secretary to expand the review beyond federally run Bureau of Indian Affairs facilities like the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City — which was the subject of a 2018 report to the Navajo Tribal Council for its questionable management practices — to boarding schools and foster care programs that were run by churches or other entities.

“In the past, it was taboo to try and talk about what happened in Utah schools with local officials and community leaders,” Lee said. “Utah and the Four Corners region is different than other places because of the strong participation and pressure for Native Americans to conform to Christian traditions of the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints].”

In a recent interview with KUER, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also suggested Haaland’s study should extend beyond the federal boarding school program. “We need to step back,” he said, “and look at the bigger picture here of how Native American children were educated and were discriminated upon and taken advantage of.”

From 1947 to 2000, the LDS Church ran the Indian Student Placement Program, which took 50,000 Native children from their communities and placed them in the homes of LDS families.

As late as 1976, the church’s official materials on the program referred to the children as “Lamanites,” which according to the Book of Mormon’s teachings are a group of people in the Americas descended from a lost tribe of Israel who were cursed for their wickedness. The church said the program was designed to provide the children with “educational, spiritual, social, and cultural opportunities that would contribute to their leadership development.”

Former participants in the program have repeatedly sued the church in recent years, alleging it failed to protect them from sexual abuse.

Utah Diné Bikéyah’s letter alleges that instances of sexual assault were common in the boarding school system as well and rarely resulted in consequences for perpetrators, which included both students and teachers.

The letter lists 20 boarding schools in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado that San Juan County residents attended as children, and it requests that the Interior Department report look into the “funding sources, school operators, and tangential businesses and beneficiaries” for the facilities.

“The vast majority of Native Americans in San Juan County, Utah,” Lee wrote to Haaland, “born before the year 1970, were removed from their families and forced into Boarding Schools. Thank you again for helping us understand why this was done, and the impact it had on Native American people.”

Interior’s report is expected to be completed in April.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.