What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Sec. Haaland on healing from the indoctrination, dehumanization at Indian boarding schools

Like Canada, America has a painful history of creating boarding schools to assimilate Native American children, leading to trauma, abuse and death. For more than 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into far away boarding schools. But now there's a reckoning and a new federal investigation underway. Judy Woodruff discusses it with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Like Canada, the United States has a painful history of creating boarding schools to try to reshape and reeducate Native American children.

    It was a practice that led to trauma, abuse, and deaths. For more than 150 years, indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into faraway boarding schools. At one point, there were more than 300 such schools, often run by religious groups, some by the federal government. By the 1920s, over 80 percent of Native American school-aged children were in these schools.

    Those practices ended in the 1960s. But now there's a reckoning, and a new federal investigation under way. It is being run under the Department of the Interior.

    And I spoke with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about this and her personal history.

    Secretary Haaland, thank you so much for joining us.

    I have to say at the outset that this is one of the saddest, most disturbing stories I have ever seen, to think of these thousands and thousands of children taken from their families, so many of whom never came back. The families never knew what happened to them. It's unspeakable.

    And your own family was touched by this.

  • Deb Haaland, U.S. Interior Secretary:

    Yes, it is a tragic era in our history, in American history, the boarding school era.

    I think about it as sort of one of the last-ditch efforts to get Native Americans out of their communities and put them into mainstream society, after genocide, after the killing off of vast numbers of Native folks, so that folks could take their land. And it was tragic, after everything else that had happened as well.

    And they took Indians from their communities and their families, so they could indoctrinate them, right, to take away their clothing, to brutally take away their languages and their cultures. And many children, yes, they never made it back home.

    I am grateful that my grandparents made it back home. I wouldn't be here today if they hadn't, of course. And so this is a history that is — that all of us need to know about, so that we can begin a healing process for the families who are still living with the generational trauma of the boarding school era, of the assimilation era, of the — of all of the terrible eras of federal Indian policy that tribes have had to live with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have a good understanding, do you think, of what happened to the children who died?

  • Deb Haaland:

    Well, I mean, we don't know, right?

    And that is one of the things that we hope to find out with our Federal Boarding School Initiative. It was widely known that, in Indian boarding schools, that malnutrition was an issue there.

    You know, if you talk to folks whose grandparents went to boarding school, and they have heard stories, the stories about kids jumping off of trains because they didn't want to go to the boarding school, running away and never being seen again.

    This was — there were many ways, yes, that children died in those settings. And that's one of the things that we're hoping we can find out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it was, as you said, a widely accepted policy in this country, in the United States, and in Canada.

    I read your quote from the Civil War veteran who founded the school for children in Pennsylvania, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who said — and I'm quoting — "Kill the Indian in him and save the man."

    It is astonishing to think that that was the mind-set behind this.

  • Deb Haaland:

    Yes, indeed.

    Native Americans weren't thought of as humans. We weren't considered citizens of this country until 1924. We didn't have the right to vote in many, many communities, some as late as 1960 or '62. We weren't thought of as valuable contributors to this country.

    And yet, today, we see that Native Americans have the highest rate of military service. The ratio is higher than any other groups of people. We step up to defend our country. And, of course, today, we defied all the odds. Many of us, many of our families, our ancestors persevered.

    My grandparents actually were part of the assimilation era. After boarding school, they went and worked on the railroad in Winslow, Arizona. My grandfather was a diesel train mechanic for 45 years. That's what they wanted to do, was get Native Americans off of their lands, out of their communities.

    And my grandparents did that. But, instead, my grandfather protected our traditions, even in a place that wasn't his homeland, so that I could know and learn what it means to be a Pueblo woman. And I'm so grateful that they persevered through all of that history.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we know, Canada established an independent what they called a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate this, to get to the bottom of it, to try to, and to issue a report.

    In our country, we have what you just mentioned, the Indian Boarding School Initiative. It's being run under your department, the Department of the Interior, but it was the federal government that was in charge of this system.

    So, my question is, can we be confident that we're going to get to the bottom of it, when it's the government, in effect, investigating itself?

  • Deb Haaland:

    Well, I absolutely feel that, with our initiative, that we can work on healing.

    I really feel confident that — I mean, that's a goal for us. And we want to make sure that the families get the answers that they need and they want. The federal government has a trust obligation to Indian tribes. That is in exchange for all the land that essentially became the United States. This was all Indian land at one time.

    And so I feel confident that this is part of our trust obligation to Indian tribes, this initiative that we are moving forward with. I feel very confident that this is a new era. And we want to make sure that tribes have a seat at the table.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, ultimately, how do you see holding the institutions accountable that were responsible for this?

  • Deb Haaland:

    That remains to be seen.

    Of course, there's a lot of — recently, I was able to participate in a ceremony at Carlisle. It's now an Army War College. It was the Carlisle Industrial School for Native Americans. My great-grandfather attended that school. And I was invited by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, as they work to remove children from their tribe who were buried in a cemetery there, to take them home to their homeland in South Dakota.

    And I think that it's up to every tribe, right? How do they want to move forward? What is their idea of healing? And what would make them feel like they have gotten the answers they want? And we're going to do our best to make sure that we are attentive to those needs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary Haaland, you also wrote recently about the challenge of loving your own country, a country that was responsible for committing these acts.

    How do you explain that to others, to other Native Americans, who look at this and question, how can they — how can you love a country that has done this?

  • Deb Haaland:

    Well, first of all, my ancestral homelands are here, and I can't go anywhere else. I — this is my home. And this is where my family is. This is where my history is.

    We have been here for tens of thousands of years. And we want to make sure that we're defending this land for future generations. I believe very strongly in democracy. And if you look at tribes across the country, so many Indian tribes had longstanding historical democracies in their communities.

    And I'm confident that our country can live up to its promise to people, to our citizens. And I want to be a part of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, we thank you very much.

  • Deb Haaland:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment