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Indian Boarding Schools: The Truth and Healing Commission

November 9, 2021 by Danny Hastings

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center via MDPIIn September 2021, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives reintroduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, which would establish a commission to “investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s Indian Boarding School Policies.”1 The commission would use its findings to recommend actions to best redress the historical trauma and long-term impacts of those policies.

In the late 1800s, more than 350 Indian boarding schools (also known as residential schools) were established across the United States.2 Native children—some as young as three years old—were forcibly taken from their families and compelled to attend. Families who refused to give up their children were denied food, supplies, and other critical support by the Bureau of Indian Affairs—all things that should have been guaranteed by treaties.3

Once in the schools, Native children were required to assimilate to the ideals and norms of mainstream white society.4 The focus was not so much on education but reeducation. The children were denied traditional meals and clothing, required to cut their hair, and punished for speaking their native languages, thus effectively stripping them of their culture.5

The white Americans who operated the schools viewed Native culture as inferior—something to be “corrected” by being erased. Quite simply, their mission was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” a phrase which is attributed to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first Indian boarding school.6 These actions, coupled with instances of neglect and abuse, have been condemned as human rights violations and acts of “cultural genocide” that have never been fully acknowledged or healed.7

Substandard medical care left Native children exposed to disease and death; those who died were often buried anonymously in shallow graves, their families denied closure and accountability. Numerous survivors have shared their own stories of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse they faced while at the boarding schools.8 Recently, non-Native Americans have become more aware of the scope of trauma and tragedy with the discovery of hundreds of graves on the grounds of former boarding schools, including more than 170 graves recently discovered in Carson City, Nevada.9 Thousands of graves of Native children were identified at former boarding schools in Canada as well.10 Preston McBride, a researcher at the University of Southern California, estimates that there could be up to 40,000 such graves across the United States.11

The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act would build upon investigations announced this summer by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to search for children’s remains at former boarding schools.12 Haaland has her own connection to this issue, as her grandparents were forced to attend boarding schools. As a former U.S. representative herself, Haaland first introduced a version of the Truth and Healing Commission bill in the previous Congress.13

Although these boarding schools have not been in operation for decades, their effects linger in Native communities and in the conscious of our country. “The U.S. Indian Boarding School Policies stripped children from their families and their cultures—actions that continue to impact Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities today,” said Representative Sharice Davids, D-Kan., one of the bill’s cosponsors. “Our country must do better to acknowledge its legacy and understand the full truth of these policies. This commission is a critical step to allow Native families and communities to begin to heal from the intergenerational trauma.”14

Discussion Questions

  1. For some non-Native Americans, the first time they heard about Indian boarding schools was though news coverage of mass graves found across Canada and the United States. Did you see these reports over the past year? Had you learned about Indian boarding schools prior to those discoveries?
  2. What might be some benefits of having a commission established by Congress in addition to the investigations that have already been launched by the Department of the Interior?
  3. What actions do you think a potential Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States might recommend, based on the issues it seeks to address?
  4. The last Indian boarding school closed in 1996.15 Although their practices were sanctioned by the U.S. government and documented for decades, why do you think it took so long to raise awareness about and take steps to address these wrongs?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!



Featured Image Credit: Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center via MDPI
[1] Senator Elizabeth Warren: https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/warren-davids-cole-reintroduce-bipartisan-bill-to-seek-healing-for-stolen-native-children-and-their-communities
[2] Reno News & Review: https://reno.newsreview.com/2021/08/15/stewart-indian-schools-200-unmarked-graves/
[3] Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indian-residential-schools-graves
[4] Reno News & Review: https://reno.newsreview.com/2021/08/15/stewart-indian-schools-200-unmarked-graves/
[5] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/28/1031398120/native-boarding-schools-repatriation-remains-carlisle
[6] Ibid.
[7] Reno News & Review: https://reno.newsreview.com/2021/08/15/stewart-indian-schools-200-unmarked-graves/
[8] The Week: https://theweek.com/us/1002172/deb-haaland-indigenous-boarding-schools
[9] Reno News & Review: https://reno.newsreview.com/2021/08/15/stewart-indian-schools-200-unmarked-graves/
[10] Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indian-residential-schools-graves
[11] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/28/1031398120/native-boarding-schools-repatriation-remains-carlisle
[12] The Week: https://theweek.com/us/1002172/deb-haaland-indigenous-boarding-schools
[13] Ibid.
[14] Senator Elizabeth Warren: https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/warren-davids-cole-reintroduce-bipartisan-bill-to-seek-healing-for-stolen-native-children-and-their-communities
[15] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/23/us/indigenous-children-indian-civilization-act-1819.html


One thought on “Indian Boarding Schools: The Truth and Healing Commission

  1. Hi! My name is James Roubidoux ll. My grandfather James Roubidoux attended this school of Carlisle indian school around the time of 1917. The trauma of what he may have endured during his time there has been passed down through the generations that followed him. Unfortunately, he never had a chance to heal from these scars, as he died in a car accident in 1958. Some of the stories that have been told to me about him that took place before my birth leads me to believe he suffered with tremendous emotional abuse. I am interested in learning more about what findings are discovered, Thank-you! James Roubidoux ll Email jimroubidoux9@gmail.com

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