Secretary for the Department of Interior Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, announced on Sept. 30 that the federal agency will begin its tribal consultation process, including with Utah’s eight sovereign nations, in the ongoing investigation of Indigenous boarding schools across the U.S.
Haaland sent letters to tribal leaders, indicating the next steps of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which was launched over the summer to examine federal boarding school policies.
The Interior says that for over 150 years Indigenous children were taken from their communities under its boarding school program. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has identified over 367 schools operated by 14 different denominations in the U.S. Thousands of Indigenous children were forced against their will to attend boarding schools.
In Utah, there are four known boarding schools - Aneth, Intermountain Indian School, Ouray and Uintah - and the lesser known Panguitch Boarding School, which The Salt Lake Tribune reported is the unverified burial location of at least 12 Paiute children.
According to a tribal letter sent to the Navajo Nation Council, the Interior’s consultations are scheduled to begin in November. The letter asks tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations and Native Hawaiian organizations for input on how to best protect potential burial sites and other sensitive sites at boarding schools.
“I launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to begin the long healing process that our country must address in order to build a future we can all be proud to embrace,” wrote Haaland in a Sept. 30 news release. “As we move forward, working with Tribal Nations is critical to addressing this legacy with transparency and accountability.
“Tribal consultations are at the core of this long and painful process to address the intergenerational trauma of Indian boarding schools and to shed light on the truth in a way that honors those we have lost and those that continue to suffer trauma,” the secretary added.
Haaland has assigned Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland to prepare the report, which is expected to be published next spring.
Also on Thursday, the NABS issued a statement saying that it supports the proposed Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act. The legislation would provide an “important avenue for an investigation about the losses that occurred through the Indian Boarding School Policies and the lasting consequences of the violence of this attempted genocide,” said National Congress of American Indians Board Secretary Juana Majel Dixon in a statement.
“The movement for boarding school healing has gained an international groundswell this year and we are now in an era of truth and healing,” said NABS Board President Ruth Anna Buffalo. “This is a movement that is rooted in the countless prayers of our ancestors and children and will not be ignored.”
Navajo Nation council delegates Amber Kanazbah Crotty and Nathaniel Brown, both of whom work on human rights issues across the Navajo Nation, including the repatriation of Diné bodies from the Albuquerque Indian School, say that these federal efforts are opportunities to help recover and heal Indigenous communities from the atrocities of boarding schools in the early 1900s.
“So right now there is no quantification of the impact, but what we see are outcomes of that experience,” said Crotty, who represents the communities of Cove, Toadlena/Two Grey Hills, Red Valley, Tsé' Ałnáozt’i’í, Tooh Haltsooí, Beclabito and Gad’ii’áhí/Tó Kǫ'í. “The broken homes, the suicidal ideations, the trauma, and increase in violence and so on are predominately the experience of the boarding school generation. That’s what we are trying to recover from.”
Brown, whose district includes Dennehotso, Kayenta and Chííłchinbii’tó and sits as chair for the Navajo Utah Commission of the Navajo Nation Council, says that he appreciates the work of the federal boarding school initiatives, especially since the traumas associated with boarding schools are considered forbidden topics in the communities he represents.
“The big thing that I hear from our people is just people need to get more information and understand what this is,” explained Brown, who attended the Dennehotso Boarding School in Dennehotso, Ariz. as a child.
Brown added that he’d recently attended a local community meeting with Diné voters in his legislative district where locals who’d worked at a boarding school pushed back against community discussion of the issue because they feared the conversation would make an employee look bad.
“I think there has to be a really important distinction in what happened,” he said, “and then acknowledging that, and then now, how we are going into healing mode.”