Access to Truth, Healing, and Justice: Digitizing the Records of U.S. Indian Boarding Schools

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, and Rose Miron

Brief Overview of Boarding School History and Context

The U.S. Indian boarding school policies lasted more than 150 years over the 19th and 20th centuries and removed hundreds of thousands of American Indian and Alaskan Native children from their parents and communities. Structured through policies1 that aimed to “civilize” Indigenous peoples, the schools sought to destroy Indian languages and cultures and “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”2 This policy ultimately attempted to dismantle Indian nations and enable the U.S. government to obtain more Indian land. As Brenda Child writes about in “Boarding School Seasons,” assimilation was not the true purpose of the boarding schools. If so, why segregate American Indians and Alaskan Natives? “The reality is that properties and assets were still at stake, and a campaign for land and resources was waged every single day of the boarding school era.”3

Physical, mental, and sexual abuse were all too common at the schools, and this trauma continues to affect American Indian and Alaskan Native communities today.4 Yet, despite their far-reaching impacts, the history of these schools remains largely missing from U.S. education curriculum, and this history is still understudied. Numerous academic texts have examined periods of boarding school history5 or the histories of single schools,6 but few if any works have studied historical Indian boarding schools comprehensively or comparatively. This is because the records of these schools are scattered across the nation in hundreds of different federal, state, and church archives. Some records are beginning to be made accessible through single-school digital archives, but accessing large portions of these documents is still difficult, and there is no place to search all boarding school records, making comprehensive research on this subject nearly impossible.7 Still, these materials constitute an important source on American, American Indian, and Alaskan Native history and U.S. policy regarding child removal and Indian child welfare.

The National Native American Boarding School (NABS) Healing Coalition was formed to address this lack of public awareness about the truth in history of U.S. Indian boarding schools. Our aim is to understand and address the profound trauma experienced by Native individuals and cultivate community-led healing for Native families and individuals. Research and data on boarding schools is an essential part of this mission. In spite of the academic literature cited above and a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 2016, we still do not know how many Native children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools. Though our independent research has identified more than 357

Indian boarding schools across the nation, the number of schools continues to grow as we seek out additional information from countless archives.8 We are working to make these records more accessible and searchable to scholars who can initiate new paths of inquiry and to Native individuals and communities who are seeking information about their relatives. To do so, NABS is harnessing technology through a forthcoming digital archive project that aims to bring new knowledge and research about Indian boarding schools to the public. Compiling the scattered records of boarding schools and making information about each institution available digitally will make analysis, understanding, and teaching of this history significantly easier. A single portal that links to other existing digital archive collections will be the first time that multiple digitized collections of boarding school materials will be made searchable through a single point of access. In this chapter, we discuss how our digital platform will promote new research on the Boarding School Era, how we are using technology to teach history that is often “difficult,” and how tribal consultation and collaboration are essential parts of our digitization process. Ultimately, our project contributes to larger trends in digitization, while calling attention to the important considerations that must be taken when digitizing and sharing information related to Indigenous peoples. Our work enables educators to raise awareness about this history, incorporate it into historical narratives, and inform community-led healing.

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