A landmark report acknowledging the United States’ culpability in forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools — where an untold number died — should be considered only the “starting point” for helping Native families, said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
In the report released Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Interior identified 408 boarding schools that operated from 1819 to 1969 with federal support, across 37 states. It listed at least 53 burial sites at those schools. Seven schools in Utah were included, with three of them focused on enrolling Diné or Navajo students. (The Salt Lake Tribune created its own list of eight Utah schools in March, after examining hundreds of records.)
The boarding schools aimed to assimilate Native children into white culture, and typically banned them from speaking their language. Rules “were often enforced through punishment,” the Interior report said, “including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing.”
Nez would like to see the department develop plans for helping Native families heal from the intergenerational trauma that is the legacy of the schools, along with a more comprehensive report exploring the experiences of each tribal nation.
“It shouldn’t just be about, ‘Well, we found some burial sites here. Index it,’” Nez said. “Families [have] got to also be involved in restoring harmony for themselves and for the future.
“How are we going to deal with this trauma, this issue, and how to have information provided to the families of their loved ones that are buried throughout this country?” Nez asked. The “bigger issue,” he said, is caring for “those that are alive and that are dealing with trauma, how to help them.”
Other Utah tribal leaders echoed that call.
Rupert Steele, chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation in Utah, said he also wants to see the federal government address the “disastrous results” of the boarding school system, “which were assimilation, economic disparities, families broken up, and unfortunately, death.”
Steele, who is a boarding school survivor himself, added: “I call upon the United States government to use the opportunity to rebuild American Indian communities, revitalize our languages and culture, and provide us with the resources necessary to thrive.”
The federal investigation was initiated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
The report includes maps and photos that have never been published before, and its recommendations include additional research. Congress has allocated $7 million for that continuing work, a department news release said.
In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, proposes creating a federal commission to study the broader legacy of boarding schools in America.
On Thursday, the congressional House Natural Resources Committee will host a public hearing on Davids’ proposed Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Act. While Davids is the sponsor, H.R.R.544 also has more than 50 co-sponsors.
Deaths in Utah and nationwide
The federal report’s next volume is expected to include comprehensive research into burial sites at the schools, with the goal of repatriating children back to their homelands, if tribes want to do so.
The current report conservatively estimates that among 19 of the identified schools, there are at least 500 Indigenous children in graves. Of the 53 burial sites identified, 33 are marked, six are unmarked and 14 have a combination of marked and unmarked graves.
The report does not list those specific locations “in order to protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”
Steele said all graves — marked or unmarked — need to be protected. “These are sacred landmarks,” he said, “and should be treated as such.”
The Interior Department said it expects further investigation will show “the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”
By looking at historic documents, The Salt Lake Tribune has tallied at least 50 student deaths at two early boarding schools in the Uinta Basin, where Ute children were forced to attend. The federal report does not specifically mention those.
But in its descriptions of the Utah schools, the federal report acknowledges the likely burial of children at a Panguitch boarding school in the southern part of the state, confirmed by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and reported by The Tribune last summer.
Utah State University, which now owns the land, is preparing to conduct a ground-penetrating survey of the area. Paiute leaders believe at least 12 kids were buried there. A memorandum between the school and tribe is still in the works.
Corrina Bow, the tribe’s chairwoman, was not available to speak about the report Wednesday. But she has previously said: “We want to be respectful and honor our ancestors, their families, and properly address this heartbreaking and tragic injustice of our history.”
Nez said the Navajo Nation, in consultation with cultural medicine healers, would leave undisturbed any Diné children buried in marked gravesites.
“I’m sure our Navajo relatives may say that they stay there because we just don’t disturb their final resting place, which may be different than some of some other tribes,” Nez said. “We also should not be publicizing these sites.”
Nez, however, did go on to say it may be up to individual Diné families to also decide what is best for their relatives.
The Navajo Nation had about 60 federal boarding schools across its vast territory in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Diné children who were sent to boarding schools off the Navajo Nation and ran away from these schools — essentially going missing — also need to be documented, Nez added.
What else comes next?
The report was compiled by Bryan Newland, the agency’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, and he next wants to estimate the total federal funding spent to support the boarding schools.
Newland intends, as well, to identify surviving attendees, interview them and document their experiences. The hope, he notes, is to support the revitalization of Indigenous cultures that the federal government harmed. The effects continue to be felt today, he said, with PTSD, depression and unresolved grief.
It will be a reorientation of federal policy focused on supporting Indigenous language and culture, Haaland added in a statement. Her own grandparents, she has said, were forced to attend a boarding school.
She is launching “The Road to Healing” initiative. That will be a yearlong tour across the country where Native American boarding school survivors and their descendants will be invited to share their experiences and be connected with trauma-informed support.
“It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal,” Haaland said.
After the Navajo Nation shared information it had with federal officials, Nez said, it is important the government provides the tribe with the data and photography it has gathered. Those resources can help the approximately 400,000 Diné citizens heal from the historical trauma of being boarding school survivors and descendants, he said.
Future reports from the Department of Interior, he said, need to include mental health counseling and resources.
Seeing the federal government finally acknowledge this harmful history offers a small amount of a relief, said Mark Maryboy, a former Navajo Nation Council delegate and former San Juan County commissioner.
Maryboy attended a boarding school for Navajo children in Aneth, Utah, in the 1960s when he was 8 years old. He said looking through the report Wednesday and seeing the pictures of the other kids at boarding schools, brought back painful memories.
“I see and feel the same thing in the eyes of all of those children,” he said. “It wasn’t a good system. The United States government did a real bad thing.”
The experiences of those who attended boarding schools, he said, have often been overlooked or ignored. “Kids died at these schools,” Maryboy said. “And a lot of them, probably all of them, were traumatized.”
Where were the schools in Utah?
Federal investigators set four parameters for a school to be counted in this report: It had to have provided on-site housing, as well as academic education or vocational training. It had to have received federal funding or support, and it had to operate before 1969.
Under those criteria, the report counted these seven schools in Utah.
• The Uintah Boarding and Day School in Whiterocks, which was open from 1880 to 1951.
• The Ouray Indian School in Randlett, which was open from 1885 to 1905.
• The Navajo Faith Mission in Aneth, which was open from 1899 to 1919.
• The St. George Southern Utah Boarding School in St. George, which was open from 1901 to 1904.
• The Panguitch Boarding School in Panguitch, which was open from 1904 to 1909.
• The Aneth Boarding and Day School in Montezuma Creek, which opened in 1935 and remains in operation today.
• The Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, which was open from 1950 to 1984.
The report doesn’t offer many details on the schools, outside the location and years of operation. The most information provided on a Utah school covers the Navajo Faith Mission school, opened by Howard Antes. The highest enrollment there was 15 pupils, until the building washed away into the nearby river.
The federal government separates out two schools that The Tribune’s list had counted as one: the Navajo Faith Mission in Aneth and the Aneth Boarding and Day School.
The Tribune also identified three schools not in the Department of Interior’s document released Wednesday.
They include the Navajo Mountain School, which has been succeeded by today’s Naatsis’aan Community School in Navajo Mountain. The first version of the school opened in 1935 and it soon began boarding its young students. The current community school, which also includes boarding students, remains in operation today.
Two others provided housing and other support for Native students who attended local public schools. The Blanding Dormitory was open from the 1930s to 1941. The Richfield Residential Hall opened in 1954 and remains in operation today.
The federal report notes that the school in Aneth remains open, along with other schools with some dormitories under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Education.
About 90 of the schools, or 22%, identified in the federal report remain in operation. Not all still board students, though, and not all are operated by the federal government.
Leaders at the boarding schools still open in Utah say they operate under a vastly different model, where culture is incorporated into lesson plans.