Report details brutal treatment of Indigenous children attending U.S. boarding schools

The federal government on Wednesday detailed for the first time the brutality and treatment Native American children suffered when they were forcibly moved into U.S. boarding schools during the course of 150 years. Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The federal government detail for the first time today the brutality and treatment that Native American children suffered when, beginning in the 1800s, they were forcibly moved into U.S. boarding schools.

    Leaders of different tribes and communities spelled out a litany of horrors that they say led to a cultural genocide that still impacts Native Americans to this day.

    Amna Nawaz looks at what the investigation found.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, between 1819 and 1969, thousands of Native American, Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian Native children attended these U.S. government schools, part of a system of over 400 facilities spread out across 37 states or then-territories.

    More than 500 children died while attending. Kids as young as 4 were forcibly removed from their families, transported across the country in some cases to schools where they were banned from speaking their language, forced to do manual labor, and suffered physical and sexual abuse.

    Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke today about her own connection to those schools during a difficult and emotional press conference.

  • Deb Haaland, U.S. Interior Secretary:

    The fact that I am standing here today, as the first indigenous Cabinet secretary, is testament to the strength and determination of Native people.

    I am here because my ancestors persevered. I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother and my mother. And the work we will do with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will have a transformational impact on the generations who follow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Also at that event was our guest, Deborah Parker. She is CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington. The coalition works with the government on this report.

    Deborah, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for making the time.

    We could hear it there in Secretary Haaland's voice. I heard it in your voice when you were speaking earlier today too. It was difficult. And I wonder if you can just tell me what it was like in that moment, what it felt like in the room to finally be able to come forward and share these findings.

  • Deborah Parker, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition:

    You know, in that moment, it was like a release of extreme amount of sorrow and grief, but also this feeling of — this feeling of pride that that we're here today.

    We're in Washington, D.C. We're at our nation's capital. I'm sitting next to an indigenous woman from the Laguna Pueblo known as the U.S. secretary interior, Deb Haaland. And we're here to share a story, to share a truth that has not been told for generations.

    The feeling, the enormous feeling of that it has impacted so many of us for generations. And it's time that we tell the story. It starts with this Interior report on the U.S. boarding schools and how we have been impacted by this federal government on the lives of indigenous children and families.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should note that this first report is volume one. There will be more findings from the investigation to come.

    But, specifically, this work found marked and unmarked burial sites at 53 different schools, the remains of hundreds of children who died in U.S. government custody. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the details uncovered in this investigation? What kind of treatment did those children go through at those schools? How did they die?

  • Deborah Parker:

    So many of our children were taken and never returned.

    We know that some of them were murdered. Some of them were buried on residential school, boarding school sites, and near rivers on hillsides. The stories are so enormous. And we know these stories from our relatives. We know these stories so well.

    But we're waiting for the federal government, we're waiting for churches, for others to tell the story as well. And when we talk about the pain, these were beatings, tortures, children — just the other day, a member from the Alaska Native tribe shared with me that his mother was put in the basement of one of the boarding schools, she was chained to a heater, and she was beaten daily.

    And so the — hearing these stories, knowing that our relatives suffered so enormously is a lot to carry.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have mentioned, we heard Secretary Haaland mention this idea of intergenerational trauma, that there is a lasting impact and legacy after the — what children went through, what a generation went through in those schools.

    And the reports show, right, today, the disparities are absolutely there. When you look at the American Indian and Alaska Native communities, you see some of the highest rates of poverty and premature death and suicide, some of the lowest rates of graduation.

    So I want to ask you to connect the dots for us. Do you believe that this effort, this investigation, it can help to close some of those gaps? What's your hope?

  • Deborah Parker:

    Absolutely.

    The hope is that we find healing. The hope is that we come together as a nation to not only tell of these truths, but also to begin to heal together. And our communities have known this truth for generations. It's time that the United States government understands these truths.

    It's time that we listen. It's time that we hold space for our traditional elders, for our keepers of our language. It's just time that we support tribal nations and indigenous peoples, who are continuing to suffer.

    And we suffer because, when our children attend these schools, they're not taught this language. They're not taught our history. We're written out of the history books. The goal was kill the Indian, save the man.

    And so, for so many of us growing up in the United States, all we wanted to be was the very best self that we could be. We wanted to carry our traditions. We wanted to — we want to speak our languages.

    But for our children and our grandparents, that was beaten out of them. That — for me to take a class, a Lushootseed class from my tribe, I sat there and cried. I — it was so difficult. And I couldn't understand why.

    But my father shared with me that grandmother cried. She tried to sing her song, but grandfather would say: "Don't sing. They will arrest you. They will come and get you."

    So, these were — these are moments that were so painful for our family. And they were meant for us to forget our songs. It was meant for us to forget our dances and our ceremonies and our language.

    So this generation — generational pain exists very deep within so many of our relatives across what these lands are now called, United States. This is our way of life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Deb, you mentioned today that you're not going to stop advocating until there's a full accounting from the U.S. government. So what does that mean to you?

  • Deborah Parker:

    Well, it means that records, the records go back to the families, that tribal nations are able to find where their children — the missing children, the missing and murdered children, that the government apologizes to these nations, but not only apologizes, that they make amends.

    And I don't have the recipe for that amends. It will be up to each tribal nation, each indigenous person who have suffered at the hands of this colonial system. We're just getting to the point where we're telling our story. And I think the rest of that will come as we listen to our elders, as we listen to the stories.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Deborah Parker:

    Thank you.

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