[NBC News] U.S. counts Indian boarding school deaths for first time but leaves key questions unanswered

The Interior Department documented more than 500 deaths of Indigenous children, but it’s far from a complete count. “We have a long way to go,” one expert said.

At least 500 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died while attending Indian boarding schools run or supported by the U.S. government, a highly anticipated Interior Department report said Wednesday. The report identified over 400 schools and more than 50 gravesites and said more gravesites would likely be found.

The report is the first time in U.S. history that the government has attempted to comprehensively research and acknowledge the magnitude of the horrors it inflicted on Native American children for decades. But it falls well short of some independent estimates of deaths and does not address how the children died or who was responsible. The report also sheds little new light on the physical and sexual abuse generations of Indigenous children endured at the schools, which were open for more than 150 years, starting in the early 1800s.

The report and an accompanying news release acknowledge the harms to Indigenous children but stop short of offering an apology from the federal government, which tribal leaders have been requesting for decades. Last month, Pope Francis apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s boarding school system, and First Nation leaders there are asking him to apologize in person when he visits the country this summer.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s grandparents were both 8 years old when they were forced to attend boarding school, she said Wednesday at a news conference. “Many children like them never made it back to their homes. Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system,” Haaland said, holding back tears.

The trauma caused by federal Indian boarding school policies — including the separation of children as young as 4 years old from their families — dates back generations and is ongoing, Halaand said. The report is the first step toward understanding what assistance people need to overcome that trauma, she said, including mental health services and language revitalization, since children were abused and forbidden from speaking their native languages at the schools.

“Even though it’s ceased or stopped in many places, the vestiges of it is still continuing today,” said James LaBelle, Sr., who is Inupiaq and a vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit that helped compile the report and advocates for survivors of Indian boarding schools.

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