Federal probe of American Indian boarding schools reflects dark chapter in U.S. history
'It’s a very important chapter in our history that needs to be addressed. You just can’t sweep it under the rug and forget about it'
Among the crumbling ruins of the former St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning is a fenced enclosure where broken, weathered and worn grave markers lie. A white, wooden cross looms over the cemetery, where the remains of more than a dozen Indigenous children remain buried and forgotten.
Nestled against a hillside, it is a somber reminder of the atrocities that once occurred there.
“Those of us who grew up on Indian reservations, we heard about St. Boniface. My grandmother was sent to Boniface. They were forbidden to speak their language and practice their culture. It’s a dark part of history,” said James Ramos, a state assemblyman, historian, and former chairman and member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
“These types of programs were started by the federal government in 1819, but they ran … all the way up early until the 1970s. Think about that for a minute.”
Ramos and other tribal leaders across Southern California hailed the June 22 announcement by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland that her department was launching a federal investigation of more than 350 Indian boarding schools nationwide that operated under the government’s cultural assimilation program in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Haaland, the first American Indian to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative during her remarks at the National Congress of American Indians’ midyear conference.
The boarding schools were an extension of the Catholic mission system. The federal government funded and oversaw the schools and the Catholic church ran them as a means to subjugate and culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly removing them from their families and suppressing their American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian identities, languages and beliefs.
Ten of the former boarding schools that will be investigated are in California, including two in Riverside County — Sherman Indian High School (formerly Sherman Institute) in Riverside and St. Boniface Indian Industrial School on Gilman Street, west of Eighth Street, in Banning.
Sherman is one of only four remaining Indian boarding schools in the country still operated by the federal government. The other three are in Oregon, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Weeks before Haaland’s announcement, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at a former boarding school in British Columbia. On June 24, two days after Haaland announced her Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, the skeletal remains of at least 600 people were discovered at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada. The school operated from 1899 to 1997 and is where the Cowessess First Nation is now located.
“The Interior Department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a June 22 statement.
Haaland, who is affiliated with the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico, has directed her staff to prepare a report detailing available historical records of all the boarding schools and the cemeteries and/or burial sites at each school in preparation for future site work, which could include the exhumation and repatriation of Indian remains. The work will occur under the supervision of the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
The primary goal of the investigation, which will occur in phases and is expected to take years, will be to identify boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible student burial sites at or near school facilities; and the identities and tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations.
“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace,” Haaland said. “The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will serve as an investigation about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.”
Along with Ramos, other Southern California tribal leaders praised the investigation. They said many Indigenous children died from disease and work-related accidents, and extreme physical and sexual abuse has not been ruled out.
“We applaud Secretary Haaland and the Department of Interior for undertaking this long-overdue inquiry into the terrible legacy and historical trauma wrought by the Indian boarding schools of the past,” said Charles Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon, which neighbors Banning and used to have an access road from the reservation to the St. Boniface school.
Martin said the recent discovery at the former Canadian boarding schools — where remains of nearly 1,000 people, many of them children, were found — is heartbreaking, but, sadly, not surprising.
“We are hopeful that this necessary examination will offer opportunities to grieve, to acknowledge the suffering and loss, and to begin meaningful healing and reconciliation,” Martin said.
‘Can’t sweep under rug’
Anthony Morales, chairman of the Gabrieleno San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, said roughly 6,000 Indigenous people from his tribe and others nationwide are buried in and around the San Gabriel Mission. He hopes the federal investigation into the boarding schools will shed light on what happened.
“It’s a very important chapter in our history that needs to be addressed. You just can’t sweep it under the rug and forget about it. We need to give closure to that chapter of our history,” Morales said.
He recalls stories about federal agents whisking Gabrielino children away from their families and placing them at Sherman Institute, where they were locked inside their cramped dorms when not working, physically and sexually abused, and died of diseases such as tuberculosis.
“Our children weren’t geared to go there. They didn’t want to go there. They were forcibly taken,” Morales said. “The treatment, the condition bestowed upon our children, was horrific.”
Officials at Sherman Indian High School did not respond to requests for comment.
The Sherman Indian School Cemetery remains to this day, enclosed by a black wrought-iron fence and gate. It is located off campus, at Indiana Avenue and November Drive, in Riverside.
All of the former boarding schools operated by the federal government had cemeteries, said Clifford Trafzer, a history professor at UC Riverside who specializes in American Indian history and has written several books on the subject, including one on Indian boarding schools.
He said students were treated like slaves, forced into hard labor and exposed to dangerous working conditions. Some died in work-related accidents.
Proving that any physical and/or sexual abuse occurred at St. Boniface, or any other boarding school for that matter, may hinge mainly on interviews with tribal members, who received that information as it was passed down through oral tradition, Trafzer said.
“We’ve all heard about this, but you’re not going to usually find that in the documents because who’s going to abuse a child and then write about it? The way we know about these abuses is though oral interviews,” Trafzer said. “That’s what the secretary (of the interior) will do, and that will be extremely revealing.”
‘Kill the Indian, save the man’
Ramos said Indigenous people long associate the purpose of the boarding schools with an infamous quote by Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Pratt was an American brigadier general and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“When you tell people that, some don’t believe it,” Ramos said. “We have to ask ourselves: We’ve gone through civil rights marches and movements; how did we go through that knowing that these types of programs affected California’s first people and our nation’s first people?”
Trafzer said the federal government’s interviews with tribal members should be revealing.
“They will know these accounts of what happened to their mothers, their fathers, their aunts and uncles. It will provide new information that is only known by tribal people,” Trafzer said. “You’re not going to find this information in documents at the National Archives or in church and government records. We’ve only just begun to learn things.”
Note: The map accompanying this article has been updated fr