Haaland seeks healing for Native American boarding school survivors
The Interior Department found that the U.S. operated or actively supported more than 400 American Indian boarding schools between 1819 and 1969 – a history that affects the agency's own leader.
Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, tells NPR's All Things Considered that she had grandparents who were taken from their homes and placed in these schools.
"[Those are] formidable years in a child's life," she says. "It's devastating. It's important that our country realizes and understands this history because I think it's important for every single American to know what happened."
The department's findings came after an investigation into these schools and the role the federal government played in sustaining them.
Much like in Canada, Native children who attended these schools were forcibly taken from their families to be "assimilated," as it was described at the time.
Many children reported brutal conditions. Others never returned home.
U.S. officials identified at least 53 schools with marked or unmarked burial sites with the remains of children who died there.
In an effort to confront this history, Haaland says she plans to meet with boarding school survivors across the country in a tour called "The Road to Healing."
"I always enjoy visiting with people in Indian Country. We're all relatives," she says. "Above all, I just need to hear those stories myself."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On why this is the first documentation by the U.S. government on the prevalence of Indian boarding schools:
Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that we haven't had a lot of Native American leadership in our country. Representation matters. And that's one of the reasons why I felt it was important for me to raise this issue.
On the lingering effects of these boarding schools on Indigenous communities:
There are current impacts in drug addiction and poverty and the lack of economic development, and health disparities. When people are invisible, you don't have to pay attention. We should care about every single community in this country. So bringing all of these things to light; it will make us become a better country.
On the idea that bringing up painful history is divisive:
These are real people, and these are their lives. I think it's important that we heal as a country. Everyone's experience in the boarding school system, whether they're a survivor or a descendant, that pain is real. And it's incumbent on me to ensure that I am paying attention to that and that I am doing all I can to make sure that we can heal and get people past that pain.
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There was shocking news out of Canada last year involving reports of mass graves on the grounds of former Canadian boarding schools for Indigenous children, many run by the Catholic Church. Native children who attended these schools were forcibly taken from their families to be assimilated, as they put it at the time. When these mass graves were found, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, called for an investigation into similar boarding schools in the U.S. At a recent press conference, her department released the first report from that investigation. It showed that for close to two centuries, the U.S. operated or actively supported more than 400 of these schools across various states, and officials have identified 53 schools with marked or unmarked burial sites with the remains of children who died there.
James LaBelle Sr., who goes by Jim, attended a residential school in Alaska and spoke at the press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JAMES LABELLE SR: I am a product of 10 years of boarding school myself, going in at the age of 8 years old. My brother was 6. And I learned everything about European American culture, its history, language, civilizations, math, science. But I didn't know anything about who I was as a Native person. I came out not knowing who I was.
MARTIN: We called Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to learn more about the findings, and she started our conversation by explaining her personal connection to the story.
DEB HAALAND: You know, it's important that this issue is coming to light. You know, my grandparents - like Jim, both of my grandparents were taken from their homes when they were 8 years old as well. And they were gone for five years from their families and their communities. That's formidable years in a child's life, and I can understand how Jim said he didn't know anything about himself as a Native person. It's devastating. It's important that people can have a voice in the issue. But it's - Michel, it's more important that our country realizes and understands this history because I think it's important for every single American to know what happened.
MARTIN: Can you talk more about the government's role in the proliferation of these schools? What impact did federal law and policy have in their creation?
HAALAND: I mean, it stemmed from the fact that the United States government needed land. And from the time the Europeans came to this continent, started colonizing the Indians, it was really all about the land. And sooner or later, it was incumbent on the U.S. government to say, we need this land. How are we going to displace all of these Indians so that we can take their land? I mean, that was essentially it. And there was a man named Henry Pratt, I believe...
MARTIN: Richard Henry Pratt? Captain Richard Henry Pratt?
HAALAND: Yes, Richard Henry Pratt, who coined the phrase something like - I'm not going to quote it exactly....
MARTIN: I can quote it for you. It's - there was a speech by Captain Richard Henry Pratt in 1892 where he used this phrase that became well known, which is, kill the Indian in him and save the man, delivered it at this National Conference of Charities and Correction in Denver. But you know, what - Madam Secretary, what struck me about that speech is that people realize it was a call for assimilation. But if you look at the rest of the speech, he seemed to see it as a humane response instead of committing active genocide. I mean, it seemed to be his argument there was, well, instead of maintaining a policy of actually killing people, maybe it would be better. It seemed to me that he was projecting this as humane. Do you recall it that way? Was this sort of projected that way?
HAALAND: Well, I think, to put that in context, they had already committed genocide against the Indians, and they worked very hard to kill as many off as they could. But it was impossible to kill them all off because we persevered through all of those eras. So finally, it was thought, if they can take the children away from their families, assimilate them, turn them into - essentially, into white people, then they wouldn't have that problem anymore. Clearly, it didn't work, and we still have distinct tribes, tribal nations that have a proud culture and a proud heritage. And today, we're doing everything we can to support them.
MARTIN: So this is just the first volume of what will be a multipart investigation. Can you tell us what some of the next steps will be?
HAALAND: Thank you. Well, we are going to embark on a yearlong essential listening tour. It's called the Road to Healing, where we travel around, speak to survivors and descendants, get them on record. We'd like to create an oral history. Our elders are not going to live forever. We want to make sure that they have an opportunity to speak about this issue if that's what they choose to do, and so we want to document that history in a way that's respectful and informative.
MARTIN: But as you know, as we said earlier, there are those who say this is in the past. It's best left in the past. And there are people who are pushing back against interrogations of other aspects of American history, saying that it's just - it's divisive. It's picking at old sores. To those who take that point of view, that this is old history, we don't really need to investigate this anymore, that this is just divisive, how do you respond to that?
HAALAND: Well, of course, you heard Jim LaBelle give his testimony at our press conference, and you likely heard him give another testimony at the legislative hearing. Tell him that it's an old sore. Tell somebody like Jim LaBelle that his history doesn't matter and that the pain he - that he experienced firsthand isn't worth remedying. And it's incumbent on me to ensure that I am paying attention to that and that I am doing all I can to make sure that we can heal and get people past that pain.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Madam Secretary, as we mentioned earlier, you're going to be traveling the country to speak with survivors of these experiences on a tour you're calling the Road to Healing. This has got to be - that's going to obviously be a painful and emotional experience for you. But is there any part of it that you're looking forward to as you embark on this?
HAALAND: I always, always enjoy traveling. I always enjoy visiting with people in Indian country. You know, we're all relatives. And so I'll look forward to connecting face to face with folks like that. Above all, I need to hear those stories myself. There was a time in my college career where I would go out to Laguna. My grandmother lived in the village of Mesita, and I would go out every single weekend and take my tape recorder. And my grandmother and I would have conversations for hours and hours, and several times, her time in boarding school came up. And although she never spoke - she never told me about any negative things that happened to her except for the fact of how lonely she was, of having to be away from her mother for five years. And I feel like that helped her to heal, you know, just to be able to get it out. And I recognized that in my own grandmother, and I hope that I can recognize that in some of the people who will have opportunities to speak with me as I'm out there on the road.
MARTIN: That was the secretary of the Department of the Interior, Deb Haaland. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for being with us.
HAALAND: Thank you, Michel. Really appreciate it.
MARTIN: To hear more of my conversation with Secretary Haaland and more stories from boarding school survivors, we invite you to listen to NPR's Consider This podcast. You can find Consider This at npr.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.