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Haaland lays out next steps on Native American boarding schools investigation, legislation

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday outlined the next steps her department has planned to address the legacy of abuses at government-run schools for Indigenous children and legislation to examine the matter. 

Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary in U.S. history, testified Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the first volume of Interior’s investigative report into the schools. At these institutions, Indigenous children had their hair cut and were forbidden from speaking their native languages, among other efforts to extinguish their heritage and assimilate them into the broader American culture. 

The first Interior report, released in May, found that over a 50-year period, more than 500 children died across 19 schools. 

The hearing also served as a chance to examine S. 2907, a bill to establish a Truth and Healing Commission to address the school system’s legacy. The legislation, which Haaland had sponsored during her time representing New Mexico in the House, would require the commission to develop recommendations for protecting unmarked graves and how to identify the original tribal areas from which the children were taken. It would also create legislative guardrails to keep present-day governmental institutions such as social service agencies from forcibly assimilating Native children. 

“Some of the most influential decisions by the department on the lives of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children involve those related to federal Indian boarding schools,” Haaland said. “That is part of America’s story that we must tell. While we cannot change that history, I believe that our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth of what took place and a focus on healing the wounds of the past.”

While Committee Chair Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) vowed to ensure the bill passes the Senate, he asked Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland for further recommendations for amendments. Newland recommended that institutions like the National Archives and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s Trust Fund Administration be included in the commission. 

However, Haaland emphasized that “we support the bill as it is written.”

“We’re going to pass this thing, certainly out of committee and hopefully out of the whole Senate, hut we want to make sure it’s aligned with what you’re already doing and we’re not tripping over a new statute… and then we need to resource it,” Schatz responded.