Justin Marks: Utah should face its complicity in the tragic Native boarding school era

New law would create a process to address the human rights violations that occurred.

(Panguitch Utah History) Pictured are the students at the boarding school for Native Americans just north of Panguitch, Utah, that ran from 1904 to about 1909.

As a master’s student at Utah Valley University, I have a front-row view of the excitement generated by a new school year. Students are getting ready for the semester of classes ahead, parents are helping put final touches on dorm rooms and professors are getting their syllabuses and lecture halls in order. Even just walking around campus here in Orem, the energy is palpable.

But truthfully, the optimism we feel for another school year is an immense privilege. For many Native children in Utah throughout the decades, school didn’t mean excitement. It meant fear, abuse and cultural destruction.

According to a recent report from the Interior Department, Utah was home to at least seven residential boarding schools for Native children in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nationwide, there were more than 400 boarding schools across 37 states. The intent of these institutions was to assimilate Native children into white American society by stripping them of their Native culture.

The harms of this era are undeniable but underreported. According to the Interior Department’s report — the first extensive investigation by the U.S. government into these schools — Native children were subject to immense abuse, both physically and emotionally. They were forced to adopt English names, had their hair cut off and were forced to participate in military drills and manual labor. Hunger and solitary confinement were frequently used as disciplinary measures.

As shown by the discovery of 53 burial sites at boarding schools across the country, abuse could turn deadly. Here in Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune has discovered at least 50 deaths at two boarding schools in the Uinta Basin.

The impacts of these schools have largely been swept under the rug and left unacknowledged by our lawmakers, both here in Utah and in D.C. Real action is long overdue.

As Rupert Steele, chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation in Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune in May, “the United States government [must] use the opportunity to rebuild American Indian communities, revitalize our languages and culture, and provide us with the resources necessary to thrive.”

That will take time. But Utahns are uniquely prepared to help with the first step in changing this conversation. Creating a better world for our children means facing the hard truths of the past. Right now, we can do that by supporting the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act.

This legislation would establish the first formal commission in U.S. history to address the human rights violations that occurred during the federal boarding school era. The bill is currently before Congress, and if it garners enough support, the House could vote on it as soon as this fall, making this is a critical moment for our lawmakers to act.

As a proud Utahn who wants to see us learn from our wrongs, I call on Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, and Reps. Blake Moore, Chris Stewart, John Curtis and Burgess Owens to support this critical bill.

The late Thomas S. Monson, former president of The Church of the Latter-day Saints, urged us to “ever choose the harder right, instead of the easier wrong.” It can be difficult to face the errors of our past, but it’s time for Utah’s lawmakers to live up to that moral calling.

Justin Marks

Justin Marks is a master’s student in social work at Utah Valley University.