On May 11, ABA President Reggie Turner sent a letter to House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States Chair Teresa Leger Fernandez and Ranking Member Jay Obernolte urging the subcommittee to support H.R. 5444, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, and to work with the House Education and Labor Committee to promptly move this bill to the House floor for a vote.
The purpose of the bill is to formally investigate and document past grievous harms arising from former federal policy and laws that originated in the early 1800s aimed at removing Indigenous children from their families and communities. As a result of those laws, Indigenous children were forced to attend federally funded boarding schools where they suffered from physical and sexual abuse, manual labor, harsh discipline, and cultural suppression. They were punished for speaking their Indigenous language or practicing their tribal traditions. Many children died from their treatment and were buried in unmarked graves.
In his letter, President Turner emphasized the need to “document the extent and enduring impact of the atrocities committed at government-sponsored boarding schools in an effort to ‘kill the Indian and save the man’ and take meaningful remedial action to start the healing process.”
In June 2021, Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to identify boarding schools, possible burial sites, and the identities of children interred. The Initiative’s first report identified 408 federally funded schools in 37 states. Burial grounds were discovered at 53 schools, with more expected as the investigation continues. Hundreds of children have been uncovered with over 500 deaths tied to nineteen schools.
H.R. 5444 would create a Truth and Healing Commission to investigate and document the abuses that took place at boarding schools and provide Congress with recommendations to address the protection of burial sites, the repatriation of children, and the cessation of removing American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children from their families, thereby complementing the efforts of the Department of the Interior.
At the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States May 12th hearing on the bill, survivors of boarding schools testified about the abuses they faced and the lasting impact. Indian Boarding School policies continue to affect Indigenous people and their tribes. Investigations into and public acknowledgement of the residential schools is necessary for accountability and healing.
The ABA has long advocated for the recognition of the rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 2021, the ABA adopted policy urging Congress for support and full funding of the Federal Indian Boarding School initiative and the enactment of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act.
Follow us @ABAGrassroots to track further developments on this important legislation.