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Last Friday, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) joined Native News Online publisher Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi) and senior reporter Jenna Kunze for an episode of Native Bidaske.

The three discussed the Department’s work over the past year to bring truth, justice, and healing to the Indigenous Americans and their descendants who were forced to attend federal Indian boarding schools for over a century and a half.

A year ago this week, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) released Volume 1 of its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report detailing the history and ongoing legacy of the federal government’s 150-year policy of forcibly assimilating Native American children into white culture by sending them to Indian boarding schools.

Simultaneously to the report’s release, Secretary Deb Haaland launched The Road to Healing tour, a year-long commitment to travel across the country, along with Newland, to hear directly from boarding school survivors and their descendants.

One year and six stops into the initiative, Newland said he’s proud of the work the Department is doing, but it’s also emotionally challenging.

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“The United States hasn’t ever had an undertaking like this, so I’m proud of the report that we put out last year and in the work that we’ve been doing,” Newland said. “It’s also tough. I’m there as a representative of the United States federal government, but we are also tribal citizens with our own family and community stories.”

Nweland recounted a woman’s testimony on the Road to Healing tour that stuck with him most about a woman who learned only as an adult that her mother went to boarding school. The discovery led to an understanding of the woman’s fraught relationship with her mother.

“There were other stories like that, but that one sticks out to me because it shows that these boarding schools didn’t just affect the kids who went to the schools, but it also affected their relationships with their kids and their grandkids,” he said. “I think that speaks to why this work is so important…[because] the effects of these boarding schools aren’t relegated to the past, they affect us today.”

While Volume 1 of the report describes a policy and a system that was used to forcibly assimilate people, Newland said it cannot tell the full story of the boarding school era. That’s where the Road to Healing tour comes in.

“It’s important that we, the United States federal government and the federal officials, provide an opportunity for people to hold us accountable as representatives of [the government], and have somebody they can look in the eye and say, ‘This is what was done to me.’”

The Department is currently working on Volume 2 of the report, due out by the end of this year, which will focus on identifying: locations of marked or unmarked burial sites on or near former school sites; names, ages, and tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations; and an estimation of federal dollars spent supporting the Federal Indian boarding school system.

Interior staff is currently working on digitizing thousands of Indian boarding school records held at the American Indian Records Repository and also at National Archives across the country. Newland said that many of the records are old and in delicate condition, so the Interior is working to digitize as many as possible “to make sure that they’re accessible to future generations.”

“That’s something that we’re putting a lot of our energy into as part of this initiative,” Newland said. “It’s not just scanning them; it’s making sure that we’re actually reviewing them, and organizing them, and incorporating our findings into a second volume of the boarding school report that will—along with people’s stories— tell a more complete story about what the schools were." 

Watch the full interview here.

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These stories must be heard.

This May, we are highlighting our coverage of Indian boarding schools and their generational impact on Native families and Native communities. Giving survivors of boarding schools and their descendants the opportunity to share their stories is an important step toward healing — not just because they are speaking, but because they are being heard. Their stories must be heard. Help our efforts to make sure Native stories and Native voices are heard in 2024. Please consider a recurring donation to help fund our ongoing coverage of Indian boarding schools. Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous-centered journalism. Thank you.

About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.