The United States will search federal boarding schools for possible burial sites of Native American children, hundreds of thousands of whom were forcibly taken from their communities to be culturally assimilated in the schools for more than a century, the interior secretary announced on Tuesday.
The initiative is likely to resemble a recent effort in Canada, where the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a defunct boarding school rekindled discussion of the traumatic history and treatment of Native populations.
Addressing a virtual conference of the National Congress of American Indians, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the program would “shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”
“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” she said. “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
The forced removals were a result of the Civilization Fund Act of 1819, which sought to introduce the “habits and arts of civilization” to Indian tribes adjoining frontier settlements through instruction.
In the years after the law was enacted, residential boarding schools were established across the nation and used to house relocated Indigenous children, suppressing American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian cultures.
The new program, called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, will identify the facilities and sites where there may have been student burials, as well as the tribal affiliations of the children, the Department of the Interior said.
It will also mine records from 1819 to 1969 that were kept by the department, which had oversight of the facilities, working with tribal nations, Alaska Native corporations and Native Hawaiian organizations. A final report will be sent to Ms. Haaland by April 1.
Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said that finding the graves of the missing children would be “very healing for a lot of our people.”
“The thing that is the open wound for our communities right now,” she said, “is the fact that our children were taken, and they’re lost, and we don’t know where they went and we don’t know what happened to them. We don’t know their final resting place.”
Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, described the boarding schools as part of an effort by the federal government to civilize Native Americans. The Cherokee Nation identifies the boarding schools as the biggest factor in the loss of the Cherokee language.
“We saw an erosion of our culture and language, and in some cases, it was literally beaten out of the children who were forced to attend,” Chief Hoskin said in a statement. “It is a history that needs to be known and remembered.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Jonathan Nez and Myron Lizer, president and vice president of the Navajo Nation, commended Ms. Haaland on the announcement.
“This troubling history deserves more attention to raise awareness and to educate others about the atrocities that our people experienced, so that they can better understand our society today and work together to heal and move forward,” Mr. Nez said.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Nez said his biggest worry for the initiative was that it would become “a report that gets filed away.”
He said he hoped that the findings from the effort would make it into textbooks and lead to teaching “unedited” Native American history, especially in public schools on reservations.
“We are sovereign nations, that should also include sovereignty in education,” Mr. Nez said.
The discovery in Canada prompted the Department of the Interior to begin the initiative to shed light on what it called “these past traumas.”
In Canada, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced in May that ground-penetrating radar had discovered the remains of 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated from 1890 until the late 1970s.
It gave new impetus to the debate on how to atone for a history of exploiting Indigenous people. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has prioritized 94 actions intended to commemorate the students and improve the lives of Indigenous people.
In the United States, a similar reckoning will take place, according to Bryan Newland, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs. He said the Department of the Interior would consult with tribes on how to protect burial sites and use other information it had gathered.
“We must shed light on what happened at federal boarding schools,” he said.
As a member of the Laguna Pueblo, Ms. Haaland is the first Native American cabinet secretary in the United States and has made Native American issues a top priority at the department.
She said in a memo that in most instances, Indigenous parents were not able to visit their children at the schools, where students endured “routine injury and abuse” and where “some perished and were interred in unmarked graves.”
The initiative may lead to the possible repatriation of human remains as well as a deeper understanding of the long-term consequences of forced assimilation.
“Many who survived the ordeal returned home changed in unimaginable ways, and their experiences still resonate across the generations,” Ms. Haaland wrote.