The black-and-white photographs had stayed hidden for years. The images showed Native American students who were part of the first group to attend a boarding school in New Mexico.
A boarding school is a school where students live during the school term.
The first picture showed girls covered in cloth with Native American shoes on their feet. The next picture, taken just weeks later, was very different. In it, the students were in school uniforms. They wore work boots and large straw hats on their heads.
The photographs were taken in 1885. History professor Larry Larrichio said he found the pictures while researching something else. He works at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico.
Larrichio immediately recognized their importance.
The images represented the attempt by the U.S. government, religious organizations and other groups to assimilate native youth into white society. The children were removed from their families and homes and sent to boarding schools. The effort lasted more than a century.
Today, the U.S. government is seeking to learn more about the nation’s policies on Native American boarding schools, where reports of physical and sexual abuse were widespread.
The U.S. Interior Department has started going through records in hopes of finding past boarding schools and the names and tribes of students. The project also will try to find how many children died while attending those schools and were buried in mass graves.
Last week, the dug-up remains of nine Native American children who died more than 100 years ago were given to relatives. The children attended a government-run school in Pennsylvania. The remains were given to the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She is the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency. She promised a full investigation. But she said it would be a painful and hard process.
The Interior Department and the National Archives have some records related to the boarding schools. But most of the records are spread around in places across the country. Many others have been lost or destroyed over the years.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has been working to collect information about the schools for almost 10 years. The Minnesota-based group has identified nearly 370 schools. The group estimates that hundreds of thousands of Native American children attended the schools between 1869 and the 1960s.
Christine Diindiisi McCleave is head of the group and a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation. She said the group has found records for only 40 percent of the schools they have identified. What the research and family stories show is that many children never came back home.
The Interior Department has taken a first step to find more about the history. But Diindiisi McCleave and others are pushing for the establishment of a federal committee. A similar committee was created in Canada, where the remains of more than 1,000 children have been found in recent weeks at schools there.
In 1819, the United States passed the Indian Civilization Act. That and other laws supported Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, native children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools.
New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo said her grandmother was taken to one of the boarding schools when she was 6 years old.
Native communities “have known about these atrocities for a very long time, but being able to bring them to light and talk about them — no matter how painful — is part of that process toward healing,” Trujillo said.
For Diindiisi McCleave, moving forward with healing will require more research, data and understanding.
She said part of knowing the full truth will be hearing “the testimony of survivors and descendants.”
Experts say the list of known boarding schools — and burial places — will only grow with more research.
In New Mexico, the Ramona Industrial School for Indian Girls opened in the mid-1880s. It was made up of mostly Apache students. Many of them had parents who were being held prisoner by the U.S. Army about 160 kilometers away. It was not far from the Santa Fe city center.
Larrichio was working on a project for the National Park Service years ago when he found reading material related to the school. Researching the school was a months-long effort that involved looking through hundreds of materials. There is only a small amount of information on the school. Some information is hidden in books that are about other subjects.
“A lot of this information is probably buried — literally buried,” Larrichio said. “How many other stories are buried, and how much was purposefully destroyed?”
I’m Dan Novak.
And I'm Caty Weaver.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported this story for The Associated Press. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
straw — n. the dry stems of wheat and other grain plants
assimilate — v. to cause (a person or group) to become part of a different society, country, etc.
attire — n. clothing
grave – n. a hole in the ground for burying a dead body
archive — n. a place in which public records or historical materials (such as documents) are kept
atrocity — n. a very cruel or terrible act or action
testimony — n. something that someone says especially in a court of law while formally promising to tell the truth
descendant — n. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past