Opinion: US begins its reckoning on Native American children

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Daniella Zalcman is a Vietnamese-American documentary photographer whose work focuses on the modern legacies of Western colonization. She is also the founder of Women Photograph, an organization working to elevate the voices of women and non-binary visual journalists. Follow her on Twitter @dzalcman and view her work on her website. The views expressed are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)After a First Nations community used ground-penetrating radar to discover more than 200 unmarked graves at an Indigenous residential school in Canada, the US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, announced in late June that she was launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It would investigate the policies and practices behind a similar Native boarding school system in the US that was meant to forcibly assimilate Indigenous youth into White, western American society.

Daniella Zalcman

These schools, which the US government first opened in 1879, were the sites of physical, cultural, psychological and emotional violence perpetrated against Indigenous children. They continue to operate to this day, though no longer with the mandate of eradicating Indigenous culture and identity. Their initial stated mission, as documented in the Civilization Fund Act of 1819, was to introduce the "habits and arts of civilization" to Native Americans, while the US government worked to dispossess them of their lands as rapidly as possible -- a reality that former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Grover acknowledged more than 20 years ago, when he apologized for the widespread trauma inflicted on children at these schools.

    The current US initiative follows Canada's footsteps in addressing the impact and legacy of coercive assimilation policies on Indigenous communities. From 2008 to 2015, Canada went through a similar process with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — a seven-year-long effort to collect survivor testimony and document the full scope of Canada's Indian residential school system.

      Now, it's America's turn. Thanks to Haaland, one of the first Native women in Congress and the first ever Native Cabinet secretary, who fittingly now oversees the Bureau of Indian Education, the United States will finally have a chance to formally reckon with its own history on this issue.

      There are a handful of critical lessons to be taken away from the Canadian investigative process.

      To understand the true magnitude of this history, it is vital that the US government begin by sourcing and collecting accurate boarding school data on enrollment and other statistics. It will permit the US, in some tiny way, to acknowledge and remember every child who was made to endure this inhumane treatment.

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      There is so much Americans do not know about the scale of the US Indian boarding school system. Information is spotty and varies significantly from source to source. The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), a nonprofit dedicated to healing in Native communities affected by Indian boarding schools in the US, has noted that in 1926 there were already 357 schools across 30 states. But the total number may be closer to 500.

      The US government also has no idea how many students were taken away from their families and communities and sent to these schools. NABS estimates that about 20,000 students were enrolled in 1900, and that the figure had more than tripled to 60,889 by 1925. But the total count is still unknown.

      In Canada, by contrast, those statistics are now available — about 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were legally compelled to attend residential school. At the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work, roughly 80,000 of them were still alive. When the commission's report, which covered the duration of Canada's Indian residential school system from 1828 to 1997, was issued in 2015, it stated that an estimated 4,100 children died while in school, but there was widespread understanding that this figure was far too low: Schools stopped keeping detailed records of student deaths in the early 20th century.

      The cemetery at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first government-funded off-reservation boarding school for Native American children, created to assimilate Indigenous youth into the dominant White culture, in Pennsylvania.

      Now, there is even more evidence that this is true. In the last month alone, three First Nations communities in Canada, employing ground-penetrating radar technology, have discovered mass unmarked gravesites: an estimated 215 at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, 751 at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan and 182 at St. Eugene's Mission School in British Columbia. And with the relatively recent accessibility of this technology, it's possible that other former boarding school sites across both Canada and perhaps the United States could make similar discoveries.

      If we extrapolate these numbers to include the 139 schools that operated in Canada, there could be tens of thousands of children buried across the country. In the US, Dartmouth scholar Preston McBride's research recently predicted that as many as 40,000 Indigenous students died during their time in boarding school.

      There's a reason why information about student deaths was so slow to surface in Canada -- it was intentionally obfuscated by both the governments and the Indian agents who were meant to enforce these policies. Shortly after the chief medical officer at Indian Affairs sounded the alarm on student deaths at the residential schools, the federal government stopped recording deaths around 1920, said Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed the Canadian TRC. But death was common — from diseases that were exacerbated by poor living conditions in the boarding school dorms, malnutrition and mistreatment, and the extremely common phenomenon of students running away and dying in the process from exposure, drowning, starvation, or encounters with wild animals.

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      As these discoveries surface and when the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative reaches its conclusion, it's crucial that when Americans are armed with these findings, they ask — what is next?

      At the conclusion of the Canadian TRC in 2015, the commission issued a list of 94 calls to action, which ranged from correcting disparities in the health, education and criminal justice sectors for Indigenous people to reassessing government attitudes toward Indigenous child welfare. Canadian historian Ian Mosby has tracked the calls to action regularly, and, as of late 2020, he determined that only eight of the 94 calls had been fully implemented.

      There is no point in assessing America's past and reflecting on reconciliation if it does not lead to substantial action toward justice. Envisioning strategies for healing and reparations is only meaningful if there is momentum behind that vision.

      Though it has barely utilized it, Canada has built a solid road map, and the US can, too — but then the US government must fervently commit to doing everything possible to mend a century of harm. Fund Indigenous language programs with the same resources assigned to Indo-European languages. Adopt the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (the US was one of only four countries to vote against it in 2007.) Investigate the elevated rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ensure Indigenous people are well-represented at all levels of American governance. Honor the treaties the government has made to Indigenous nations. Cede back stolen Native land in the US.

      And lest we forget, this process will be deeply traumatic: The discovery of new information about student deaths, the recording of testimony from survivors, the dredging up of painful personal and intergenerational memories of a system meant to eradicate Indigenous culture and identity. But if the work is to be done, if it's to be part of the collective healing process in America, it needs to be done with transparency.

      In Canada, the TRC gathered roughly 7,000 statements from survivors, along with millions of government, church and school documents and photos. That testimony came at great emotional and psychological cost to those who chose to speak out. But many of the products of all that labor remain largely inaccessible at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, only available in person or via complex bureaucratic paperwork.

      As it takes on similar work, the US will need to do better. Make this work worthy of its emotional cost, for those who want their stories to be told. Make sure it is seen and heard, so that for once Americans can sit with the gravity of their own history as settlers.

        Americans must never forget the ways in which the US government enacted brutal cultural genocide against hundreds of sovereign tribal nations. This history must be incorporated into educational curricula until the boarding schools are as much a part of US history as the Boston Tea Party and World War II.

        It is the only way forward.

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