More than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died over the course of 150 years in Indigenous boarding schools run by the American government and churches to force assimilation, according to a new report.
The federal report follows an investigation launched in June 2021 by Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland into the government's role in the schools as part of an effort to dispossess Indigenous people of their land to expand the United States. The probe began after nearly 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were unearthed at Indigenous boarding schools in Canada.
Native Nations scholars estimate that almost 40,000 children have died at Indigenous boarding schools. And according to the federal report, the Interior Department “expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”
"I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of the Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead," a tearful Haaland said during a press conference on Wednesday.
Haaland, the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position, oversees the government agency that historically played a major role in the forced relocation and oppression of Indigenous people.
She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe and previously told ABC's "Nightline" that her great grandfather was taken to the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which was open from 1879 to 1918.
"When my maternal grandparents were only 8 years old, they were stolen from their parents, culture and communities, and forced to live in boarding schools until the age of 13," Haaland said on Wednesday. "Many children like them never made it back to their homes. Each of those children has a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this earth. Because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system."
The United States operated or supported 408 Indigenous boarding schools in 37 states in which hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families, according to the report.
Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, who led the initiative, said Wednesday the report shows the federal government targeted Indian children to further its policies.
"Federal Indian boarding schools have had a lasting impact on Native people in communities across America," Newland said in an emotional address. "That impact continues to influence the lives of countless families. From the breakup of families of tribal nations to the loss of languages and cultural practices and relatives, this has left lasting scars for all Indigenous people."
The deaths of the children occurred at approximately 19 federal Indian boarding schools, but the Interior Department expects the number of recorded deaths to rise as the investigation continues. The report also identified 53 burial sites for Indigenous students and emphasizes that more sites could be unearthed.
Some of the abuse children experienced included the "rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care," the report found.
"I am here because my ancestors persevered," Haaland said. "I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother and my mother and the work we will do with the federal Indian boarding school initiative will have a transformational impact on the generations who follow."
Asked by ABC News if the federal government plans to offer reparations for Native American families impacted by the policies, Newland said the report is a "first step of this initiative."
"There's a lot more work that has to be done to simply tell them the truth and lay out the scope of the federal Indian boarding school system," he added.
The second phase of the investigation will identify children who died and bring their remains back to their communities, as well as identify living survivors and descendants of attendees of Indian boarding schools to document their experiences, the report says.
It also commits to backing federal funding for the advancement of Native language revitalization, supporting scientific studies that promote Native health research and holding a federal memorial to recognize the generations of children forced into the boarding schools. It pledged to ensure that policies and practices are in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
"I have a great obligation, but I was taught by my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother that when you are asked to do something for your people that you step up," Haaland told "Nightline" earlier this earlier.
Haaland said she is launching a yearlong tour, "The Road to Healing," in which she will travel across the country to meet with families impacted by the painful legacy of Indigenous boarding schools and give them a platform to share their stories and heal from "intergenerational trauma."
"We have lived with the intergenerational trauma of federal Indian boarding school policies for many years," Haaland said. "But what is new is the determination in the Biden-Harris administration to make a lasting difference in the impact of this trauma for future generations."
ABC News' Abby Cruz and Tenzin Shakya contributed to this report.