FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for over a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children into white society has identified more than 500 student deaths at the institutions so far, but officials say that figure could grow exponentially as research continues.
The Interior Department report released Wednesday expands to more than 400 the number of schools that were known to have operated across the U.S. for 150 years, starting in the early 19th century and coinciding with the removal of many tribes from their ancestral lands. It identified the deaths in records for about 20 of them.
The dark history of the boarding schools -- where children were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their Native American languages and often abused -- has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations.
Many children never returned home, and the Interior Department said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands. Officials say causes included illness, accidental injuries and abuse.
"Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live our their purpose on this earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system," said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years as kids.
The agency -- with the help of many Indigenous people who had to work through their own trauma and pain -- has poured through tens of thousands of boxes containing millions of pages of records. But accounting for the number of deaths has been difficult because records weren't always kept.
A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government's financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said. It has so far identified at least 53 burial sites at or near boarding schools.
The boarding school era perpetuated poverty in Indigenous communities, loss of wealth, mental health disorders, substance abuse and premature deaths, Haaland said at a news conference Wednesday, choking back tears.
"Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning," she said. "We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues."
Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the government's role in them. The 408 schools her agency identified operated in 37 states or territories, many of them in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Interior Department acknowledged the number of schools identified could change as more data is gathered. The coronavirus pandemic and budget restrictions hindered some of the research over the last year, said Bryan Newland, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
The U.S. government directly ran some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies to "civilize" Native Americans.
The Interior Department report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.
Haaland also announced Wednesday a yearlong tour for Interior Department officials that will allow former boarding school students from Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent oral history collection.
"It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous Peoples can continue to grow and heal," she said.
Boarding school conditions varied across the U.S. and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, children at the schools often were subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut.
Early curricula focused heavily on outdated vocational skills, including homemaking for girls.
Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure that any children's remains that are found are properly cared for and delivered back to their tribes, if desired. The burial sites' locations will not be released publicly to prevent them from being disturbed, Newland said.
Accounting for the whereabouts of children who died has been difficult because records weren't always kept. Ground penetrating radar has been used in some places to search for remains.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which created an early inventory of the schools, has said Interior's work will be an important step for the U.S. in reckoning with its role in the schools but noted that the agency's authority is limited.
Later this week, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada. Several church groups are backing the legislation.