By Lisa Cavazuti, Cynthia McFadden, Maite Amorebieta, Yasmine Salam
Photograph by Tara Rose Weston for NBC News
November 16, 2022
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, South Dakota – Inching on her knees, Marsha Small scraped across the dirt floor, searching for a bone, a tooth, any human fragment.
This grim task consumed Small and his team of archaeologists for five days in mid-October. They were searching for the remains of indigenous children beneath a former Native American boarding school that represents a dark chapter in American history.
“My ancestors put me here,” said Small, 63, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and a doctoral student at Montana State University, outside the Red Cloud Indian School. “And that’s why I do this.”
In the early 19th century, the US government established and supported more than 400 boarding schools designed to extinguish indigenous culture and assimilate Native American youth into white society. The objective, in the words of one of the founders of the first school, was “to kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
Schools often required children to take English names and give up their style of dress and hairstyle, as well as their traditional languages, religions, and cultural practices.
The children were forcibly taken from their homes. In 1893, the Bureau of Indian Affairs received authorization from Congress to withhold rations and food supplies from American Indian families who refused to enroll or support their children in boarding schools.
The boarding school system was used as a “weapon” not only to break children’s ties to their families and culture, but also to seize the lands of indigenous peoples, according to a Senate report published in 1969.
Students suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse in schools, and poor medical care, malnutrition and overcrowding contributed to the spread of disease, according to an Interior Department report released in May.
It is estimated that at least 100,000 Native American children attended the boarding schools, which operated in 37 states with the last ones closing in the late 1960s.
Untold numbers of children never returned home, their bodies often buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites hundreds of miles from home. The total number of students who died in schools could be in the tens of thousands, according to the Department of the Interior.
“The consequences of federal indigenous boarding school policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by forced family separation and cultural eradication, were inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 and are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. , the first Native American person to serve as a cabinet secretary, said in June.
The search for unmarked graves at Red Cloud is part of the school’s “Truth and Healing” effort to address injustices of the past. Red Cloud is the first former Indian Catholic boarding school in the country to start a search for human remains.
“We know very little about the institutions,” said Preston McBride, a historian who currently studies diseases in federal American Indian boarding schools located off reservations.
McBride said that while causes of death varied among students, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death. Students also died from a variety of infectious diseases, accidents, and injuries. She estimates that at least 40,000 students are likely to have died while attending schools and could be buried in unmarked graves across the country.
“Boarding school politics made disease flourish on every campus,” McBride said. “Schools were places of militarized discipline, institutionalized malnutrition, systematic overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor medical care, and forced labor without the support of a balanced or sufficient diet.”
Their research also shows that Native American students in off-reservation boarding schools were much more likely to die than their similarly aged white counterparts.
“School-age children, the healthiest demographic in any population, should not be dying in the numbers that they did, even in a pre-antibiotic era,” McBride said.
For many who endured the boarding school system, the federal government’s decision to investigate and acknowledge atrocities committed against Native Americans came too late and is moving too slowly. Canada has paid millions of dollars to former boarding school students and family members there, and created a commission that has called the system “cultural genocide.”
“I want America to stand up to their genocide,” said Alex White Plume, 71, a former chairman of the Oglala Sioux tribe who attended two boarding schools in South Dakota but not Red Cloud. “American genocide is what it is.”