Indigenous families seek justice for boarding school abuse as graves of children uncovered

Many children died of disease or abuse and were buried on school grounds.

Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families over a span of 150 years, made to live in boarding schools across the U.S. that were run by the federal government and churches in an effort to force assimilation.

“It was a national policy to take Indian children, to beat their native language out of them, to remove them from their families so they wouldn't have that cultural teaching,” U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told “Nightline.”

“Native kids are born into not just their mother's arms, but into the arms of their entire communities … when you are born into that nurturing community and all of a sudden [you’re] ripped away from that – imagine how much trauma that would have on a child.”

Men debating in class at the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Penn., 1901.
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According to Denise Lajimodiere, a Native American scholar and the author of "Stringing Rosaries," the purpose of these residential schools was “total assimilation into white European culture.” Native American children were forced to cut their hair and wear uniforms to conform.

“I think they just saw these kids that they weren't even human. They saw them as savages,” she told “Nightline.”

Once they were at the schools, the children were forced to work without getting paid and some children never made it home.

Scholars estimate that tens of thousands of children died at the schools from abuse or disease and, in some instances, their remains were buried in unmarked graves in school cemeteries. Some children died while working on what was called an "outing," where children from the boarding schools were hired out to work for families.

“The corporal punishment was pretty horrendous. Boarding school survivors tell of kids being taken away and disappearing and never being seen again,” Lajimodiere said.

Male and female students read in class at the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Penn., 1901.
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A legacy of generational trauma

For more than a century, Native Americans have urged the government to acknowledge and address the generational trauma and lasting impact from the boarding school era, which spanned from 1869 through the 1960s.

After nearly 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children were unearthed in June 2021 at Indigenous boarding schools in Canada, Haaland, who is the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position, launched a federal boarding school initiative to investigate the United States’ role in implementing these policies.

“Families deserve to know what happened. And so we are working to compile decades and decades of information so that we can hopefully give them some answers,” she said.

Men debating in class at the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Penn., 1901.
Francis Benjamin Johnston/Buyenlarge via Getty Images

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, oversees the government agency that historically played a major role in the forced relocation and oppression of Indigenous people. Haaland's great grandfather was taken to the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which was open from 1879 to 1918.

Lajimodiere, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa or Ojibwe, said that the painful legacy of these boarding schools has impacted every Native American family.

Her father attended the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, from 1925 to 1929 when he was 9 years old.

“He was stolen,” she said.

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
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At Chemawa, Marsha F. Small is on a mission to locate human remains of Indigenous children who were buried on school grounds.

“People don't like to learn the ugly America. They want the America the beautiful,” Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and a doctoral student at Montana State University-Bozeman, told “Nightline.”

“Without this healing, I don't think that America itself can heal,” she added.

Small and her team use ground penetrating radar technology to look for graves. So far, she says they have found about 222 graves, with some dating back to 1885.

“When I go into cemeteries …I talk to the children and I, and I tell them, you know, that those that want to go home may have a possibility of going home. You’re not forgotten,” she said.

Marsha F. Small uses ground penetrating radar technology to look for remains of children at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., Markers on the ground are placed where graves were found.
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A journey of healing

The boarding school era lasted for more than 150 years. By the late 1970s, many schools had closed, but others like Chemawa remained open.

Today, Chemawa’s mission is to honor “unique tribal cultures.”

The number of boarding schools that were run by the U.S. government is unknown, so Lajimodiere launched her own efforts to locate as many boarding schools as she could.

The cemetery at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore.
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Rita Means, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, attended St. Francis Indian Mission School – a school operated by Jesuits from 1886 until 1972 – from the sixth grade until the 12th grade.

“In my time, I don't think anybody was forcibly taken, but I know that feeling of separation from your family,” she said.

“Any place that you can't leave is a prison. We were definitely locked in until we, you know, had to go to church at six in the morning,” she added.

Her daughter, Shelley Means, said that two generations of her family were disconnected from their children, who attended Indigenous boarding schools.

“[They] didn't learn parenting skills the way traditionally we would have taken care of each other,” she told “Nightline,” adding that she had to work hard at learning how to emotionally support her own daughter, Shylee Brave.

PHOTO: Rita Means, left, her daughter Shelley Means, center, and granddaughter Shylee Means.
Rita Means, left, her daughter Shelley Means, center, and granddaughter Shylee Brave.
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For Brave, her grandmother is a “survivor” and she is doing her own part to bring healing to her community.

As part of the Sicangu Youth Council in Rosebud, South Dakota, Brave traveled in July 2015 to the school in Carlisle, where more than 150 children from over 40 tribes were buried, including nine from the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

“The thing that really sparked this whole movement was asking, why are our kids still there?” she said.

“It like, really hit, like, wow, this could be my cousin, this could be my uncle, this could be my relative. What if I didn't get to go home? It just really like sunk in, like, what if this was me?” she added.

Shylee Brave visits the graves of the six children from the Rosebud Sioux tribe after their remains were brought back to the reservation in South Dakota from the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Penn.
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After sharing her experience with her grandmother, the Sicangu Youth Council launched an effort to bring the remains of the children of the Rosebud Sioux tribe at Carlisle back home.

They had to request the remains from the U.S. Army, which owns the school, and on July 2021 the remains of six children were finally brought back home and were escorted by Brave and members of the the youth council.

The children are now buried in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Veterans Cemetery in South Dakota. Their names are Maude Littlegirl, Lucy Take the Tail, Alvin Braveroaster or One that Kills Seven Horses, Dennis Strikesfirst, Warren Painter, and Rose Long Face.

“It was a really hard, long journey. I mean, we really had to fight,” Brave said.

“They didn’t get to grow up. They didn’t get to have a family,” she added, as she visited the cemetery. “ I’m really happy that they’re home, but at the same time it’s like this shouldn’t have happened.”

Haaland, whose great grandfather attended Carlisle, told Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega that she is “grateful” to have an opportunity to address this painful past.

“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,” she said.

For Lajimodiere, Haaland’s efforts are part of her journey of “healing.”

“I just wept,” she said, recalling Haaland’s announcement.

“It's like, finally, finally, after a decade of working toward this moment, here it is. And it took a native female head of the Department of Interior to make this moment happen and to start the healing journey for so many survivors.”

ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.