SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and implemented policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the nation.

The purpose of these schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their identities, languages, and beliefs were to be suppressed.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, nearly 83 percent of Native American school-aged children were attending boarding schools by 1926. The organization said that for more than 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities, punished for preserving their tribal identity, and forced to take on white Christian values, religion, culture, and language. It is believed that most U.S. citizens do not know about the existence of these boarding schools or the intergenerational trauma suffered by Native American communities.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced her department would be launching an investigation, called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It’s said to be a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies and preparation of a report, expected to be completed in April 2022, detailing available historical records, with an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites. This comes after the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada.

Intermountain Indian School (Used by permission from Utah State Historical Society)

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Sec. Haaland wrote that she is a product of “these horrific assimilation policies.” She explained that her maternal grandparents were stolen from their families when they were only eight years old and forced to live away from their parents, culture, and communities for five years.

She said that the historical attempt to wipe out Indigenous identities continues to manifest itself in the disparities our Native American communities face, such as long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and additional undocumented physiological and psychological impacts.

To this day, residential boarding schools continue to operate through the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Education. However, the department said that in sharp contrast to policies of the past, these schools now aim to provide a quality education to students from across Indian Country and empower Indigenous youth to better themselves and their communities as they seek to practice their spirituality, learn their language, and carry their culture forward.

The process of healing, justice, and reconciliation is just beginning and it starts with bringing these traumatic events to light.

In July, Utah Diné Bikéyah sent a letter to Sec. Haaland to offer their assistance in the investigation. All 11 members of their board attended these residential schools as children and are now a network capable of reaching hundreds, if not thousands of other attendees. They are currently collecting stories internally and have a non-comprehensive list of resources and locations of facilities in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Denae Shanidiin, director of MMIWhoIsMissing and Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator at Utah Diné Bikéyah joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen for an IN FOCUS Discussion. They provided background on the history of residential boarding schools, the recent uncoverings of murdered children at facilities in Canada, the experiences of their family members and friends who attended these schools, how the assimilation left deep societal scars on our Native American population, the letter sent to Sec. Deb Haaland, and what they hope comes out of it.

For more information on Utah Diné Bikéyah and their organization’s work, visit their website. To learn more about MMIWhoIsMissing, visit their website.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Shanidiin and Baca, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.