As federal government begins study of Native American boarding schools, history of Haskell likely to see spotlight

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U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a presidential Cabinet secretary, announced this week that the federal government would investigate its oversight of Native American boarding schools — used in the late 1800s and much of the early to mid-1900s to force American Indian children into cultural assimilation.

The move on Haaland’s part to begin the first comprehensive examination of Native American boarding schools in the country came shortly after the remains of some 215 children were discovered in late May at the site of a former Indigenous school in Canada.

That review will almost certainly include an examination of Lawrence’s Haskell Indian Nations University, which opened in 1884 as one of the first four Native American boarding schools in the country. Congress in 1882 decided to open three boarding schools in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas, each modeled off of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the nation’s first such school.

When Haskell opened, it was known as the United States Indian Industrial Training School and in its formative years enrolled students in first through fifth grades. Conditions at the school were poor, and students were often physically disciplined for misbehavior. Haskell today maintains a cemetery of 103 young Native Americans buried between 1885 and 1943, most of which came during the first 30 years after the school opened.

The boarding school had expanded into a high school by the 1920s — a point in time at which at least 83% of all Native American children were attending boarding schools — and evolved to a junior college in 1970 before becoming Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993.

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said Tuesday in announcing the federal effort to study boarding schools.

The study, Haaland said, will include compiling and reviewing records to identify past boarding schools, locating known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncovering the names and tribal affiliations of students. Such an effort is personal for Haaland, who wrote in a Washington Post editorial on June 11 that her family members were some of the hundreds of thousands of Native American children taken from their families and placed into boarding schools.

“Many Americans may be alarmed to learn that the United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people. It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era,” she wrote. “I am a product of these horrific assimilation policies. My maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only 8 years old and were forced to live away from their parents, culture and communities until they were 13. Many children like them never made it back home.”

As part of the initiative, a final report from federal staffers is due by April 1, 2022.

Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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