OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will travel to Oklahoma on Saturday for the first leg of a year-long nationwide tour to hear about the painful experiences of Native Americans who were sent to boarding schools supported by government designed to strip them of their cultural identities.
Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, is the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in U.S. history, and the agency she oversees recently released a report that identified more than 400 of the schools, who were seeking to assimilate Aboriginal children into white society for a period extending from the end of the 18th century until the end of the 1960s.
Although most closed long ago and none still exist to strip students of their identity, some still operate as schools, albeit with radically different missions that celebrate the cultural origins of their indigenous students. Among them is the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, about 80 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, which is one of the oldest and where Haaland will meet former students and their descendants on Saturday.
Riverside, which opened in 1871, currently serves students in grades four through 12, offering specialized academic programs as well as lessons in cultural subjects such as beadwork, shawl making, and an introductory to tribal art, food and games. Currently operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, it has nearly 800 students from more than 75 tribes across the country, and the school’s administration, staff, and faculty are primarily Native American.
It is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools across the country funded by the Indian Bureau of Education that seek to provide education aligned with a tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being, according to the office website.
Until recently, the federal government had not been open to examining its role in the troubled history of Native American boarding schools, where children were removed from their families, forbidden to speak their language and often abused. This has changed because people who know the trauma that has been inflicted are in high positions in government.
At least 500 children have died in these schools, but that number is expected to rise into the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is conducted.
The Department of the Interior report includes a list of boarding schools in states or territories that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and received federal government support.
Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona, which had 47, and New Mexico, which had 43. All three states still have large Native American populations.
Former students might be reluctant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policy was to eradicate the tribes and, later, assimilate them under the veil of education. But some are happy to be able to share their stories for the first time.
Lahoma Schultz, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation who lives in Bixby, Oklahoma, said she discovered documents showing her grandfather was forced to wear military clothing, learn English and perform unpaid work while attending boarding schools in Oklahoma and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
Schultz said she got angry as she pieced together how such schools affected generations of her family. His mother, Mollie Hicks, attended boarding school for a semester in 1938 and was punished for speaking the Creek language.
“She said if she ever got married and had kids, she wouldn’t teach them the language,” Schultz said. “Here I am in my 70s trying to learn my language, and it’s really discouraging.”
Her mother’s experience led Schultz to research boarding schools and her family history in the early 2000s after earning a doctorate in psychology. She learned the names of parents she never knew and understands better why her parents insisted that their children not attend boarding schools.
“It’s been healing, even for me, because I’m gathering more information about my own family,” she said.
Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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