Russell Eagle Bear, the historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, stands in his office in Rosebud, S.D., May 6, 2016. Eagle Bear led a meeting May 10 between leaders of several tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and representatives from the U.S. Army to address the possibility of repatriating the remains of at least 10 Native American children who died away from their homes while being forced to attend the government-run Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania more than a century ago. AP Photo/Regina Garcia Cano

U.S. government admits atrocities inflicted on Indigenous people at federal Indian boarding schools

Indigenous civilizations, dismantled and destroyed through colonization and expansion throughout what is now the United States, suffered the devastating blow of forced assimilation, between 1819 and 1969, to control the country’s native population, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In his report to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and the first Native American to hold a White House cabinet position, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, wrote that the systematic destruction leveled against First Nations people, through what was known as Indian boarding schools, stripped American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children of their identities. 

“The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills,” the Department’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report stated in its executive summary. The report was released May 11.

Leonard Juan, 77, a respected Navajo elder born near Top of the World and Continental Divide, New Mexico, described being sent away as a young child to an Indian boarding school in 1953, and said the government’s system of control over his people was all he knew while growing up.     


Mr. Juan told The Final Call how he and other Navajo children were physically beaten for making mistakes and for speaking the Navajo language at his particular school, an experience he said he never suffered at home. Mr. Juan said fear and humiliation led him and others to often run away in order to return to their families.

“I walked 25 miles away from where they put me in school, (to) make it back (home) and in the wintertime, I had run off again,” Mr. Juan said, explaining how he, as a nine-year-old, endured frostbite, hunger and mountain exposure after making four escape attempts from an Indian boarding school formerly located in Crownpoint, NM. 

“I didn’t know anything about who was running (the school) at the time, I was so young, and I didn’t even know. I didn’t know anything about English; I only knew my own language and they never took it away from me,” he said.

Describing how being raised by his mother and uncle was a positive experience after the death of his father from an illness in 1948, Mr. Juan said he was deeply immersed in Navajo culture as a child and that it never really left him. He said his mother was instrumental in rooting him in Navajo ceremonies and other activities in order to safeguard his identity and that to this day, many Navajo guard their beliefs in order to protect their culture.

Mr. Juan recounted how the traumas of family separation, attempts to strip Indigenous people of their identities, and the disappearance of friends and family from 150 years of official and deliberate policy destroyed families, cultures and communities. He described how forcible assimilation showed no respect for Native American culture while holding little if any value for their ways.  

Creating harms reverberating to this present day, he said he now works to help heal his people from the damage caused by the federal government’s generations-long plan to dismantle his culture and tribal identity.

“I’m over here in California (now) and working with all the Native American Indian programs, and alcoholics and drug addicts,” he said. “We bring (them) in from out of jail and then try to get them sobered up, and that’s where I always talk about things like this,” Mr. Juan said.

Indian Reservations (red or shaded regions) and American-Indian Boarding Schools 1892, (Library of Congress, United States Office of Indian Affairs).

Advocacy, activism and the knowledge of self

“Healing the wounds of our Native brothers and sisters requires that we acknowledge and address the generational trauma that has resulted in PTSD, grief, pain, sorrow, suicide, addiction, low self-esteem and self-worth,” said Theresa X Torres, a registered member of the Nation of Islam. She is of Indigenous Mexican origin and an advocate of restorative justice in both the Native and Latin American communities.

Theresa X, who serves Indigenous communities in the Western United States as a drug and alcohol counselor, told The Final Call that division, colorism and the lack of self-knowledge has ill-effected non-White descendants of conquered and colonized people. She said the legacy of Indian boarding schools has created mindsets of self-oppression and recovery and restoration can only come out of embracing the knowledge of self.

“There are many tribes that have traditions that were passed down from our elders,” explained Theresa X. “Dance, drumming, sweat ceremonies, (and) powwows have (all) been a blessing and a source to our healing.”

Explaining how the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation was designed to manage and control Native populations and not to empower or include them into American society, she described the Indian boarding schools as tools of colonialism and genocide.     

“Because I work with Native Americans, I understand what came with that, (and) that was the breaking of our people; and if they didn’t die, to take the culture, the spirituality and traditions and even the natural medicines that our people had and to break all of that and disconnect us from what worked for us,” added Theresa X.

Regarding the Department of the Interior’s report, Assistant Secretary Newland admitted on page 21 of the report that: “Beginning with President (George) Washington, the stated policy of the Federal Government was to replace the Indian’s culture with our own. This was considered ‘advisable’ as the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s White inhabitants, of helping the Whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon by which these goals were to be accomplished.” The report also found that approximately 19 federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian child deaths but that the number is expected to increase.

Student Minister Abel Muhammad is representative to the Latino community for the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and based in Chicago. He said he witnessed first-hand the abuses Native tribes have suffered from both public and private entities seeking to exploit their land. Citing controversies surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota as another example of violation during the Obama and Trump administrations, he said the rights of Native people continue to hang in the balance.

“Unfortunately, it’s the same whether it’s in the United States, Canada or Mexico or the Caribbean, Central or South America. Wherever you find the Indigenous people, who are the original inhabitants of the lands that are now occupied by the present-day governments, you find us on the bottom of the society,” Mr. Muhammad said. “Not just socially, but you find us with the worst health conditions, the poorest education and, of course, financially, the most ill-effected.”

For those believing they have no voice, and pointing out how despair, pain and anguish can lead to self-harm, Mr. Muhammad explained how substances often become the means by which pain is made numb and negative feelings are suppressed.

“That’s why we thank Allah because the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, from the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, has given us a remedy, which even for those who don’t see themselves as Black, but know they are of the Original People of the planet, if we could just hear what he is saying to us from God, it would fill that hole and give us a sense of self that would raise us up.”

—William P. Muhammad , Contributing Writer