Agency finds at least 500 Native American deaths in U.S. boarding schools

Jason Weiland

A new study of Native American boarding schools that were established or supported by the U.S. government starting in the early 1800s and operating through the late 1960s, identified more than 500 student deaths at these institutions. The Interior Department released a first-of-its-kind study highlighting the deaths in records for at least 20 of the schools during that time period.

Officials expect that number to grow exponentially as the research continues.

The murky history of these boarding schools is something that has deeply impacted Native Americans for generations. The government's own data shows there are likely thousands more deaths than what was previously thought, as many children never returned home after being removed from their families and “were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages, and often abused.”

The Interior Department estimated that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could climb to thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes of the deaths in the schools included disease, accidental injuries, and abuse.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland says, “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.” Her own grandparents were sent to boarding schools as children for several years.

According to AP News, the Interior Department “is in the process of poring through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of records, with help from many Indigenous people who have had to work through their own trauma and pain.”

The number of deaths will be difficult to accurately represent because records weren’t always kept during the years the boarding schools were operational.

“Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning,” the Interior Secretary said. “We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues.”

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