Recent Legislation

Recent Legislation: Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act

From the 1860s until the 1970s, the U.S. government operated Indian boarding schools intended to expedite assimilation: the early proponents of this system believed it would “[k]ill the Indian . . . and save the man.”  Recently, U.S. Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States.  The legislation defines “Indian Boarding School Policy” as the “policy of the Federal Government under which more than 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children were forcibly removed from their family homes and placed in any of 460 Bureau of Indian Affairs-operated schools, including 367 Indian boarding schools, at which assimilation and ‘civilization’ practices were inflicted on those children as part of the assimilation efforts of the Federal Government, advancing eradication of indigenous peoples’ cultures in the United States.”  If passed, this Act will enhance the American public’s awareness of U.S. Indian boarding school policy, acknowledge that the federal boarding school system perpetrated cultural genocide, and provide a path for repairing the intergenerational harms that the policy produced.

The “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act” is the first federal effort to formally investigate and document the “cultural genocide, assimilation practices, and human rights violations of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States.”  It will examine intergenerational trauma in tribal communities and offer “a forum for Indigenous victims and families to discuss the personal impacts of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence.”  The Act charges the Commission with creating recommendations for federal action to address the intergenerational implications of Indian Boarding School policy and encourages the development of solutions to stop present-day removal of American Indian and Alaska Native children from their tribal communities.

To accomplish this task, the Commission’s membership plan prioritizes diverse perspectives.  It requires representatives from four pan-Indian organizations and directors of four Indian education services.  At minimum, the Commission will host: five nominees from different tribes and geographic areas; two or more healthcare or mental-health practitioners with experience working with former Indian boarding school students; three members of Indian organizations with expertise in systemic or historical trauma associated with the boarding schools; four Indian boarding school survivors; and two family members of students who attended the schools.  The Commission will include current students of Indian boarding schools, former Indian boarding school faculty, and one representative of the International Indian Treaty Council or Association on American Indian Affairs.

The deadline for the final report is two years following the bill’s passage.  The end product must “locate, document, analyze, and preserve” boarding school records, as well as survivors’ stories.  Additionally, the Commission will submit proposals for legislative and administrative action.  Its report will support increases to federal funding for American Indian and Alaska Native mental health and traditional healing programs.  It also will suggest the mandatory inclusion of Native American history and Indian boarding school history in K-12 curriculum.  Lastly, it will present guidance both to address the schools’ intergenerational effects on Native communities and to prevent similar harms from occurring in contemporary Indian boarding schools.  Ultimately, the Commission possesses the power to “hold such hearings, sit and act at such times and places, and take such testimony, and receive such evidence as the Commission considers advisable to carry out this section,” granting it broad discretion to exercise its duties.

If passed, this bill will achieve a variety of admirable objectives.  First, it will increase awareness about Indian boarding schools.  In the United States, less than ten percent of Americans know about these institutions.  Before Canada’s analogous Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools (TRC), only thirty percent of Canadians were conscious of their country’s residential schools, which were modeled upon the U.S. boarding school system.  After the TRC released its findings, seventy percent of Canadians were informed about this traumatic history.  Hopefully, the Act likewise will improve recognition of this history in the United States.  The testimony collected will generate an oral archive that will reshape national narratives.  Furthermore, if the commission is successful in integrating Indian boarding school history into the common curriculum, it will force the United States to reckon with its settler-colonial past and present.

Second, the inclusion of “cultural genocide” and “human rights” in this bill represents an important step toward acknowledgment.  The U.S. government has never admitted that it committed genocide against Native peoples.  Yet the schools ripped children from their families, severed them from their Indigenous cultures, banned them from speaking their languages, prohibited their practice of traditions, and endeavored to Christianize them.  Thousands of students died from disease, malnutrition, and abuse; hundreds more disappeared, but their records remain inaccessible to their tribal communities.  Following the TRC, seven in ten Canadians agreed that the term “cultural genocide” should be used to describe the residential schools policy.  The Commission in the United States likewise may show the American people that the U.S. federal government sought to systematically destroy Indigenous cultures through the removal and assimilation of their children.

Third, the Commission may begin repairing intergenerational harms caused by federal Indian boarding school policy by requesting that the United States government issue a formal apology, advocating for reparations, funding accessible healthcare programs, and increasing financial support to federally run schools for Native American students.  The December 19, 2010 Native American Apology Resolution made “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States” is the sole U.S. federal government apology to Indigenous peoples.  It was buried in a defense appropriations spending bill, did not mention boarding schools, and failed to advance concrete actions to remedy historical injuries.  President Obama signed it in private with little fanfare, so the American public remained largely oblivious.  The Commission also may advocate for monetary compensation.  There is precedent for reparations in Canada, where the government agreed to a settlement on behalf of up to 86,000 former Indian residential school students for 1.9 billion dollars.  However, in the United States, statutes of limitations bar legal actions brought by boarding school students and their families.  In the absence of a class action, the Commission still may recommend that the United States award similar reparations. 

Additionally, the Commission may advocate funding essential services to facilitate healing.  The Act’s inclusion of former students’ family members and mental healthcare providers demonstrates its attention to the long-term effects of Indian boarding school policies on Native peoples.  The endorsed treatment programs may be community-led and incorporate culturally appropriate traditional healing models.  Moreover, the Commission may advise increasing financial support for Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, as well as schools on reservations, which serve approximately 42,000 Indigenous students.  Under its federal trust responsibilities, the U.S. government has an obligation to provide educational services to citizens of Native nations.  It has repeatedly failed to uphold that promise.

This legislation may raise awareness among Americans about the history of Indian boarding schools, acknowledge that this federal policy promoted cultural genocide, and begin the healing process through issuance of a government apology, recommendation of reparations, and improved access to essential services, such as healthcare and schooling.  Thus, the Commission has the unique opportunity to start recognizing and righting historical and ongoing injustices that continue to affect Indigenous students, their families, and their Native nations.