Pershlie Ami, a citizen of the Hopi tribe, shares her experience of attending Phoenix Indian School when she was a kid during the Road to Healing tour hosted by the U.S. Department of Interior at the Gila Crossing Community School on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)
The Department of Interior is partnering with the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve the oral history and records collected as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
The NEH committed $4 million to support the digitization of records from 408 federal Indian boarding schools and create a permanent oral history collection documenting the experiences of the generations of Indigenous students who passed through the federal boarding school system.
The legacy of the federal Indian boarding school system is not new to Indigenous people. For centuries, Indigenous people across the country have experienced the loss of their culture, traditions, language and land at the hands of federal boarding schools.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “Deeply ingrained in so many of us is the trauma that these policies and these places have inflicted.”
For the first time in history, in 2022, the Department of Interior released its investigation report on the federal Indian boarding school system, identifying more than 400 schools and over 50 burial sites across the U.S.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative launched in 2021. It is an ongoing effort by the Interior Department to acknowledge the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies and address their intergenerational impact by shedding light on past traumas.
Arizona was home to 47 boarding schools whose Indigenous attendees were children taken away from their families and subjected to attempted assimilation through education — and often, physical punishment.
“This is the first time in history that a U.S. Cabinet Secretary comes to the table with this shared trauma, and I’m determined to use my position to help communities heal,” Haaland said. “This is one step, among many, that we will take to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within Native communities that federal Indian boarding school policies set out to break.”
The department and NEH plan to work together to develop a collection of oral histories and digitization of records documenting the experiences of survivors of federal Indian boarding school policies and their descendants.
“The policies of the federal Indian boarding school system have had a profound and lasting impact on Native communities,” NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe said in a statement announcing the partnership.
“The first step toward addressing the intergenerational consequences of these schools is to squarely acknowledge and examine the history of a federal system intended to separate families, erase Native languages and cultures, and dispossess Native peoples of their land,” Lowe said. “NEH is proud to join with the Department of the Interior in this important effort to shed light on this chapter of our country’s history.”
The U.S. government has never before undertaken a project to create a permanent oral history program on the history of federal Indian boarding schools, according to the Interior Department, and it is a resource that Indigenous communities have requested.
“The Department’s oral history project will ensure survivors’ stories and experiences can be understood and learned from for future generations,” the Interior Department stated.
Individuals from the Interior Department are already working through the records collected by the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and federal archives, Lowe said in an interview with the Arizona Mirror. NEH’s funding will help to fast-track that work so more people can access the archives to look for records, pull them out and start to digitize them.
“Our funding will also go to supporting the collection of oral histories that will eventually create an actual oral history project,” Lowe added, which will entail collecting the voices and experiences of the Federal Indian Boarding School student attendees and documenting them.
Lowe said that developing an oral history and digitizing records helps document the stories and experiences of the Indigenous students impacted by boarding schools and the experiences of children and grandchildren of those who attended a boarding school.
“It helps us to preserve, rescue and make this history available to others so that it’s not a history that we make assumptions about,” she said. “It’s a history that we can actually turn to look at documents.”
This work will provide people with the services that showcase what happened and people will be able to learn about occurrences at a particular school and what happened to students from specific Indigenous communities, Lowe said.
“It really does help us to tell the stories of these students that have been overlooked and they’ve been ignored,” she said.
The work done through this partnership is a better way for people to understand what role the federal Indian boarding school system played in shaping Indigenous communities, Lowe said.
“It’s important for everyone to understand the boarding school history,” Lowe said, because it helps Indigenous communities when this part of U.S. history is acknowledged and examined.
In addition to NEH’s support for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, Lowe said the NEH also has funding available for related humanities programs — including scholarly research, convenings, and educational programs — that will provide further public understanding of the history and impact of the federal Indian boarding school system.
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