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Sexual and physical abuse as well as exploitation were commonplace at Native American boarding schools, survivors told a House subcommittee on Thursday.
Watch the event in the player above.
Boarding school survivor and Inupiaq man Jim Labelle said he was struck and hosed with icy water during his years at a boarding school in Alaska. He also witnessed far worse physical violence.
“There was also sexual abuse. These schools were magnets for pedophiles,” Labelle said.
“At lights out, matrons would start molesting the youngest children in the lower bunks and bathrooms. There were two or three matrons on duty, and we were an open field of candidates they could abuse at their whim,” he said during the hearing.
Labelle said as they grew up, some of the students that were in the schools later became abusers themselves.
“So began the cycle of sexual violence in the school,” Labelle said.
Labelle was joined at the hearing by several other Native American survivors.
A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools released on May 11 found that for over a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children into white society has identified more than 500 student deaths at the institutions, but officials expect that figure to grow exponentially as research continues.
The Interior Department report released Wednesday expands to more than 400 the number of schools that were established or supported by the U.S. government, starting in the early 19th century and continuing in some cases until the late 1960s. The agency identified the deaths in records for about 20 of the schools.
READ MORE: Interior Department report identifies more Native American boarding schools and burial sites
The dark history of Native American boarding schools — where children were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations.
Many children never returned home, and the Interior Department said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes included disease, accidental injuries and abuse.
“Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years.
The agency is in the process of poring through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of records, with help from many Indigenous people who have had to work through their own trauma and pain. Accounting for the number of deaths will be difficult because records weren’t always kept.
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said. It has so far identified at least 53 burial sites at or near boarding schools, not all of which have marked graves.
Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure that any children’s remains are properly cared for and returned to their tribes, if desired. To prevent them from being disturbed, the burial sites’ locations will not be publicly released, said Bryan Newland, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
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