FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Deb Haaland is pushing the U.S. government to consider her role in Native American boarding schools like no other Cabinet Secretary could — backed by personal experience, a struggle to lose her own Native language and a community wider that has felt the devastating effects.

The agency she oversees — the Department of the Interior — released a first-of-its-kind report this week that names the 408 schools the federal government has supported to strip Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children have died in some schools, but that number is expected to rise into the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is conducted.

“We are in a unique position to help unravel the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for far too long,” she said at a press conference on Wednesday. “As a Pueblo woman, it’s my responsibility and, frankly, it’s my heritage.”

The US government has been unwilling to investigate itself to find out the truth about the boarding schools that operated from the late 18th century to the late 1960s. It is possible now because people who know of firsthand the lingering trauma caused by the boarding school system are positioned within the US government.

Yet the work to uncover the truth and create a path to healing will depend on the availability of financial resources in Indian Country, which the federal government has chronically underfunded.

Tribes will have to navigate federal repatriation laws to bring home deceased Indigenous children buried at former boarding school sites, if they choose, and may have no recourse to access burial sites on private land. Causes of death included disease, accidental injury and abuse.

Boarding school survivors might also be hesitant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policy was to eradicate the tribes and, later, assimilate them under the veil of education. Some appreciated the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.

Haaland, the first and only Native American Cabinet Secretary, has the backing of President Joe Biden to investigate further. Congress has provided the Department of the Interior with $7 million for its work on the next phase of the report, which will focus on burial sites and the identification of Indigenous children and their ages. Haaland also said a year-long tour would seek to collect stories from boarding school survivors for an oral history collection.

A bill that has already been introduced in Congress to create a truth and healing commission on boarding schools was heard for the first time on Thursday. It is sponsored by two Native American representatives from the United States – Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, who is Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is Chickasaw.

“Working with the Interior, knowing that there are representatives within the federal government who understand these experiences not only on a historical record but deep within themselves, their own personal stories, really makes a difference” , said Deborah Parker, executive director of the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribes.

More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual abuse committed against children in off-reserve schools. Then, in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed a sort of apology for “the violence, abuse, and neglect of Indigenous peoples by citizens of the United States.” The language was buried deep in a multi-billion dollar defense spending bill.

The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior inquiry to search for records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its adoption, possible in the US House but more difficult in the US Senate.

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and policies to establish and support Native American boarding schools. The goal was to civilize Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funds and were willing partners.

Captain Richard Henry Pratt described the essence of federal residential schools in a speech he gave in 1892 where he said, “Kill the Indian and save the man.

Minnesota resident Mitch Walking Elk ran away several times from the boarding schools he attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s because “my mind knew it wasn’t a good place for me. “, did he declare.

Boarding schools aren’t the only thing that has made him suspicious of the federal government, even though he seems willing to find out about the past. In 1864, the Walking Elk ancestors of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were attacked in the Sand Creek Massacre. At least 200 people were killed and the bodies of the victims were mutilated.

“I have reservations about what’s going on right now because I don’t trust them,” Walking Elk said. “If Deb Haaland makes too many waves, the far right, extremists will fabricate something to curb that.”

Boarding school survivor Ramona Klein testified before Congress on Thursday, describing seeing her mother cry as her children boarded a large green bus to boarding school, were scrubbed with a stiff brush once there, and slept under a coarse woolen army blanket. She put on a big rubber hand when she said she was touched at school at night “like a child’s body shouldn’t be touched”.

“Being at this boarding school was the loneliest time of my life,” said Klein, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, North Dakota. “It made it difficult for me to trust others, including the members of this committee, with my emotions, my thoughts, my dreams and my physical being. And how could that not be the result?”

Republican Representative Jay Obernolte of California said Congress should consider the financial investment in the proposed commission and whether those who serve would do so as a public service or be compensated.

“I’m not opposed to investing substantial taxpayer resources in this commission, but I do think we need to be explicit about what those resources are,” he said Thursday.

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