The locations of unmarked cemeteries at Native American boarding schools will remain unknown to the general public, despite the Department of the Interior’s work to discover them.
Federal agency and Native American affairs experts said releasing details of the sites could expose those burial grounds to looters and continues to be a sensitive issue that requires tribal consultation and approval.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, last year launched a federal investigation into the long history of Native American boarding schools in the United States, which aimed to assimilate children into European culture and American. The investigation, sparked by the discovery of thousands of children’s graves in Indigenous schools across Canada, includes naming hundreds of schools and searching for marked and unmarked burial sites.
The first investigative report, released last month, said more than 400 Indigenous boarding schools had been identified and at least 500 children had been buried in 19 of them. Federally supported schools made up most of them and were in 37 states, with more than 40 schools in New Mexico (the third most, behind Oklahoma and Arizona), according to the report.
Unmarked graves were found in six locations, while another 14 schools had both marked and unmarked sites, the report said, adding that more work needs to be done and the statistics will increase.
A report on the second phase of the investigation will focus on details of the burial sites, the Home Office said.
But Assistant Indian Affairs Secretary Bryan Newland confirmed in an email last week that the burial locations would not be released.
“Consistent with the practices of federal agencies to protect many other tribal sacred sites and burial sites from desecration, the Department will not release the location of unmarked burial sites. We will continue to work with the tribes on the repatriation of remains in accordance with federal law,” the statement said.
New Mexico state historian Rob Martinez said that boarding schools generally imposed assimilation on Native American children. Many required children to speak only English and wear white clothes.
“It was traumatic,” Martinez said. “They cut their hair, which was a big deal in the native culture.
Children have also been forcibly removed from their families.
University of New Mexico law professor Barbara Creel de Jemez Pueblo wrote in an email that the Interior Department’s investigation is focused on “a deadly, destructive and ugly truth.”
Boarding schools had such an impact on Native Americans, Creel wrote, that “it’s no wonder the U.S. government has struggled to come to terms with this legacy.”
Haaland’s announcement of the boarding schools initiative last year cited a desire to identify boarding school facilities and sites; locate known and possible student burial sites within or near school facilities; and identify the names and tribal affiliations of the children buried there.
The initial report on the investigation named four current and former boarding schools in Santa Fe: the Indian School of Santa Fe, which still exists; the Institute of American Indian Arts, which opened in 1962 and is now a college; St. Catherine’s Indian School, which closed in 1998; and the Ramona Indian School, which existed in the late 1800s.
St. Catherine, whose property is now owned by the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority, has a small cemetery for nuns. None of the schools mentioned the existence of burial plots for children.
Several Indigenous leaders have said they support the Interior Department’s decision not to release the locations of unmarked graves for residential school children.
Regis Pecos, former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and co-director of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute, said the looting of Native American burial sites was its own chapter in the schools’ “horrible” history.
“It’s a tragic part of our history, and it’s coming back to haunt the United States,” Pecos said last week of residential schools. “Massive looting of graves continues today.”
Pecos said the market for Native American antiques remains lucrative. And some people dig for artifacts “as a hobby without realizing they are sites of people who have gone on,” he said.
A 1990 federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requires museums, universities and other entities to inventory human remains and transfer them upon request and in consultation with tribes.
The identification and repatriation of human remains “is a very sensitive aspect of the scope of the investigation” of the federal government, said Samuel Torres, deputy executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in Minneapolis.
“I respect and understand why the Ministry of the Interior has not released this information,” said Torres of the Mexican People’s Mexica/Nahua. The ministry “has to get it right”, he added.
Leland Michael Darrow of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe in Oklahoma also said he agreed with the Interior Department’s decision not to name the burial sites.
“There is a long history of native burial sites being looted for salable items, valuable relics or curiosities,” said Darrow, a tribal historian. “Unless there is reason to believe that known graves will not be disturbed, it is probably best not to disclose the locations.”
Pecos said at least some tribes think it’s “taboo” to remove buried remains, but sometimes they are forced to take the remains home and deal with those complexities. When Lake Cochiti was created about 50 years ago, he said, at least 200 remains of Cochiti people were unearthed. Cochiti Pueblo designated a place for the reburial, he said, but did not participate in the reburial.
4-H Park Cemetery in the City of Albuquerque contains remains of children and administrators of the defunct Albuquerque Indian School. City officials continue to meet with tribal officials from across the state to get information on what to do with the cemetery.
Terry Sloan, Tribal Liaison for the City of Albuquerque, said ground-penetrating radar was used to assess the extent of the cemetery and its remains, but tribal officials asked that the number of remains not not be disclosed. A plate was stolen on the spot three years ago and the talks include a replacement.
Removing the remains “has been discussed, but I don’t think that will happen,” Sloan said Friday. Tribal officials don’t want to bother them, he said. A temporary fence surrounds the cemetery, and there is a sign calling it a sacred place that should not be disturbed, he said.
Christopher Eagle Bear, a Rosebud Lakota from South Dakota, was among a group of young Lakotas who traveled to the site of the defunct Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania last year and brought back to the Rosebud Reservation the remains of nine children.
Six were placed in the Veterans’ Cemetery and three went to families for burial. “We don’t really see this as a reburial,” Eagle Bear said. “We see it as bringing our loved ones home.”
He said the group had sought advice from elders and spiritual leaders on how to handle the situation.
Since then, other tribes have contacted the Lakota group, the Sicangu Youth Council, for information about what the process of recovering these remains entailed.
He said his group is researching the history of boarding schools in South Dakota and will also rely on the work of the Department of the Interior to glean facts.
“So I feel like we’re just getting started,” he said.
Recovering those remains and placing them in the veterans cemetery was surreal, he said. “It was sad, cool – I don’t know how to explain it.”
He added: “There is no reason why we should rebury anyone. But here we are.
As he spoke, Eagle Bear, a firefighter, said he was in New Mexico battling wildfires.
Pecos said the Santa Fe Indian School has become “the shining light of a school for transforming education and using education to be the heart of cultural survival.” Nonetheless, he said, most American schools continue their efforts to assimilate Native American children rather than encouraging them to embrace their cultures.
Martinez, the state historian, said the effect of boarding schools on Native American lives was long-lasting. “This stuff is passed on… fear of education, fear of people coming in from outside.”
Boarding schools are part of American history, he said, that must be carefully considered.