Around half of the Federal Indian Boarding Schools “received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization, including funding, infrastructure, and personnel,” according to a report published May 11 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Titled “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,” the report is the result of a June 22, 2021, memorandum by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland directing the department “to undertake an investigation of the loss of human life and lasting consequences of the Federal Indian boarding school system.”

A cemetery at the Chilocco Indian Boarding School in Oklahoma.

A cemetery at the Chilocco Indian Boarding School in Oklahoma. (Credit: Mitch Randall)

The department’s investigation was prompted, in part, by the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children in Canada at boarding schools similar to those operated in the U.S.

The Interior Department’s report has located and documented 53 burial sites at schools that were within this system. Of this total, 33 locations had marked sites, 14 had both marked and unmarked sites, and six had unmarked sites.

Between 1819 and 1969, there were 408 boarding schools operating at 431 sites in 37 states or (at the time) territories of the U.S. Religious organizations played a significant role in many of these schools, receiving funding from the government, as well as providing housing and education for residents.

The primary goal of the schools was forced assimilation, which the report describes as “systematic, militarized and identity-alteration methodologies.” Children were not allowed to wear their traditional clothing, speak their native language or practice their family’s religious traditions, and corporal punishment was frequently used to enforce desired behaviors.

This approach continued longstanding practices that dated back to the nation’s founding, designed to obtain the land held by Indigenous tribes and to force them to assimilate. The report cited a summary provided by the National Advisory Council on Indian Education in its first annual report to Congress published in 1974:

“Beginning with President Washington, the stated policy of the Federal Government was to replace the Indian’s culture with our own. This was considered ‘advisable’ as the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s white inhabitants, of helping the whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon by which these goals were to be accomplished.”

In 1871, Congress passed legislation “to compel Indian parents to send their children to school and to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations to ‘secure the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children who are wards of the Government in schools maintained for their benefit by the United States or in public schools.’”

The report said there is “ample evidence in Federal records demonstrating that the United States coerced, induced, or compelled Indian children to enter the Federal Indian boarding school system.”

Good Faith Media CEO Mitch Randall’s great-grandmother and great-aunt were sent to the Chilocco Indian Agricultural Boarding School in Oklahoma, one of the schools within this federal system. He detailed their experience in the July-August 2021 edition of Nurturing Faith Journal, which was reposted at on July 8, 2021.

The campus of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in northern Oklahoma.

The campus of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in northern Oklahoma. (Photo: Mitch Randall)

Randall explained that Chilocco was modeled on the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, founded by Richard Pratt. The schools were run based on the Pratt Doctrine: the belief “that to save the Indigenous people, one must kill the Indian inside.”

Chapter eight of the U.S. Interior Department’s report is titled, “The Role of Religious Institutions and Organizations in the Federal Indian Boarding School System.” It details the interplay between church and state in both the funding and functioning of this school system.

Religious organizations and their mission schools were included as part of the system and, thus, received federal funding.

These institutions also had support from the U.S. military “to reinforce the missionaries’ orders,” and, in some instances, were provided “tracts of Indian reservation lands for the use of religious institutions and organizations carrying on educational and missionary work among the Indians.”

One school superintendent reported to the Secretary of the Interior in 1886 that “the Government aid furnished enables them to sustain their missions, and renders it possible … to lead these people, whose paganism has been the chief obstacle to their civilization, into the light of Christianity – a work in which the Government cannot actively engage.”

In addition to federal appropriations, a significant portion of funding for the boarding school system came from trust accounts managed by the federal government that had been established with money paid to Indigenous tribes for their land.

In 1908, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Quick Bear v. Leupp, which sought to challenge the use of these trust funds to run the school system. A majority decided that such usage was acceptable and stated, among other conclusions, “that the prohibition on the Federal Government to spend funds on religious schools did not apply to Indian treaty funds.”

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Haaland in a press release announcing the report’s publication.

“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face,” she said. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

The full report is available here. Appendices A and B, listing the schools in the system, are available here, and Appendix C, providing a location map of the schools, is available here.

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