The U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday released the final version of its first report into the history of American Indian boarding schools — and touched briefly on the history of Lawrence’s Haskell Indian Nations University in the process.
The report found that U.S. boarding schools were responsible for more than 500 student deaths between 1869 and 1969 when the last boarding school opened.
“As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of recorded deaths to increase,” the report states.
Haskell 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.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in June 2021 commissioned her department to begin the first comprehensive examination of Native American boarding schools in the country came shortly after the remains of 215 children were discovered a month earlier at the site of a former Indigenous school in Canada.
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 Native American children buried between 1885 and 1943, most of whom died 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 when 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.
The Interior Department report issued Wednesday mentions Haskell just twice, first in an examination of the boarding school’s structure:
“For example, in 1886, Haskell Institute, Kansas, instituted a ‘a stricter form of discipline than heretofore prevailed’ by establishing a ‘cadet battalion organization of five companies [to] br[eak] up the tribal associations. Size of cadets, and not their tribal relations, determining now place in dormitory and mess hall, also necessitates a more frequent recourse to the English language as a common medium, by bringing pupils of different tribes into closer contact.’ In that year alone, the Institute intentionally mixed Indian children from 31 different Indian Tribes to disrupt Tribal relations and discourage or prevent Indian language use across the ‘Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Chippewa, Comanche, Caddo, Delaware, Iowa, Kiowa, Kickapoo, Kaw, Mojave, Muncie, Modoc, Miami, New York, Omaha, Ottawa, Osage, Pawnee, Pottawatomie, Ponca, Peoria, Quapaw, Seneca, Sac and Fox, Seminole, Shawnee, Sioux, [and] Wyandotte’ children.”
— Department of Interior report
The second mention comes in a section discussing how boarding schools believed they could “not possibly be maintained on the amounts appropriated by Congress for their support were it not for the fact that students are required to do the washing, ironing, baking, cooking, sewing; to care for the dairy, farm, garden, grounds, buildings, etc.-an amount of labor that has in the aggregate a very appreciable monetary value.”
“At the Haskell Institute, Kansas, for instance, the children were ‘encouraged to enjoy the work,’ ‘the children were carefully instructed in the cultivation of strawberries, and under proper supervision were allowed to gather the fruit and enjoy strawberry suppers.’ ‘If the labor of the boarding school is to be done by the pupils, it is essential that the pupils be old enough and strong enough to do institutional work.'”
— Department of Interior report
The report stressed that more thorough efforts to collect data and information on the history of boarding schools will be needed to complete Haaland’s directive in issuing the study.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said in a press release Wednesday. “The Department’s work thus far shows that an all-of-government approach is necessary to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian boarding school policies set out to break.”
A second volume of the report will be funded by a $7 million Congressional investment through fiscal year 2022, the department said.
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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.
Democratic lawmakers are pushing federal agencies to provide support for survivors of and communities affected by the decades-long practice of forcibly sending American Indian children to faraway boarding schools that rejected their tribal cultures, such as the school that eventually became Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.