By Brad Brooks
ANADARKO, Okla. (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Saturday met with elderly survivors of Native American boarding schools, her first stop on a year-long tour to hear first-hand accounts of widespread abuses committed at those institutions.
Haaland met with survivors at the Riverside Indian School, the nation's oldest federally operated boarding school for Native Americans, collecting oral histories of the atrocities they faced.
In May, Haaland, the first Native American female Cabinet member, released an initial report https://www.reuters.com/world/us/interior-dept-investigation-finds-burial-sites-53-indian-boarding-schools-2022-05-11 from the Interior Department's continuing investigation into the history the boarding schools.
The schools were centers of forced assimilation that began in the early 1800s and continued through the 1970s, with the stated goal of wiping out Native American culture.
Haaland told a crowd of about 300 people that federal Indian boarding school policies had touched every indigenous person she knew, and that all Native Americans "carry the trauma in our hearts."
"I'm here to listen. I will listen with you, I will grieve with you, I will believe you and I will feel your pain," she said.
After Haaland's brief remarks, several elderly survivors of boarding schools took turns telling their accounts of abuses they suffered decades in the past, nearly all saying they were separated from their families by ages 4 or 5 and rarely made it home until they graduated from high school.
Conditions at former Indian boarding schools gained global attention last year when tribal leaders in Canada announced the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops residential school for indigenous children, as such institutions are known in Canada.
Unlike the United States, Canada carried out a full investigation into its schools via a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The U.S. government has never acknowledged how many children attended such schools, how many children died or went missing from them or even how many schools existed.
Lawrence SpottedBird, the newly elected chairman of the Kiowa tribe, said he's a veteran and feels as American as anyone. But he said it's far overdue that the country stops "whitewashing the brutal history" of the boarding school system.
"America prides itself on being an advocate of democracy and human rights around the world but was itself one of the worst violators of human rights when it comes to Native Americans," he said. "They need to be honest about this history so they can heal with us."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Sandra Maler)