Boarding school commission bill passed by Committee of Indian Affairs, will go to Senate floor

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KTUU) - A bill that will establish a commission to investigate, document and acknowledge the trauma and injustice of the Indian boarding school system has passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with unanimous support and is headed to the Senate floor.

The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, sponsored by 27 senators including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, was approved by the Committee of Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

Murkowski, who is vice-chair of the committee, called it an important step in healing for those affected by boarding schools.

“Today the Indian Affairs Committee took a monumental step towards addressing the dark legacy of the United States federal Indian boarding school policies and their impact on Native peoples and communities,” Murkowski said. “This commission will help document what happened and then develop recommendations on how to heal from these harms. I commend the work of the committee staff and members for their efforts to address the calls for justice by advocates while making bipartisan improvements to the bill. I look forward to advancing it through the Senate.”

The bill states that “assimilation processes, such as the Indian Boarding School Policies, were adopted by the United States Government to strip American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children of their Indigenous identities, beliefs, and languages to assimilate them into non-Native culture through federally funded and controlled Christian-run schools, which had the intent and, in many cases, the effect, of termination, with dire and intentional consequences on the cultures and languages of Indigenous people.”

A press release from Murkowski’s office says the bill included “amendments reflecting feedback from over 100 survivors, descendants, Tribal leaders, advocates, churches, local governments, and experts, who provided testimony for the record.”

Thousands of school-aged Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed into residential schools designed to “assimilate” them into white American culture. The schools forced new religions, languages and beliefs upon the students, and children were often abused, assaulted or even killed while in the care of a school.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says that a congressional commission is necessary to examine the records of more than 350 known Indian boarding schools that operated between 1819 and 1960.

Increased calls for reconciliation stem from recent discoveries of human remains at former residential school sites. A 2022 federal study found the remains of more than 500 students. The Department of the Interior says that the number of remains could number in the tens of thousands.

The United States has yet to establish a formal avenue for boarding school survivors and relatives to seek answers and healing. A similar agency was formed in 2008 in Canada that provided residential school survivors an avenue to share their experiences with lawmakers and researchers. That commission was dissolved in 2015 after publishing a report concluding the actions of the residential school system in that country amounted to cultural genocide.

Among the supporters of the bill are members of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which represents Quaker lobbyists. Because at least 30 Indian schools were operated by Quakers, the FCNL General Secretary Bridget Moix says the bill is the next step on the path towards healing and justice.

“As a Quaker organization, we also commit to and call on our own faith community to continue a truth and reckoning process with our role in facilitating this violence and cultural genocide against Native communities,” Moix said.

“Just as we must reckon with our own role in the Indian boarding school era, the federal government and other faith groups who bear responsibility must face the truth, demonstrate accountability, and actively participate in the long, hard journey toward healing that protects human rights and tribal sovereignty.”

The bill calls for official documentation of ongoing impacts of the school system, location of church and government records, culturally-appropriate listening sessions for survivors and descendants, and a report documenting the findings. Perhaps most importantly to survivors and descendants, the bill also calls for the identification and protection of sites where the remains of Indian school students are buried.

The legislation will now head to the Senate floor.

By:  Shannon Cole
Source: Alaska News Source