Has called on federal government to ‘recognize its role in local Indian boarding schools and lead a healing effort’
Congressman Brian Higgins recognized U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for conducting a newly released investigation that details the federal government’s role in Indian boarding schools, including three sites in Western New York. Higgins received early news of the findings in a call with U.S. Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.
Higgins’ team said, “Indian boarding schools managed or financially supported by the federal government forcefully assimilated indigenous children, which took them away from their families and suppressed their identities, languages and beliefs. In June of 2021, Secretary Haaland announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which focuses on investigating and documenting the federal government’s role in operating and overseeing Indian boarding schools across the United States.”
The Department of Interior released an investigative report finding “between 1819 to 1969, the Federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 Federal schools across 37 states or then-territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. Some individual Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for multiple sites. The 408 Federal Indian boarding schools accordingly comprised 431 specific sites.”
Higgins urged the secretary to include the Thomas Indian School in the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The Thomas Indian School was located in on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Erie County. While the school was operated by New York state, there are several documented instances of financial support received from the federal government.
Through the investigation, the report details three Indian Boarding Schools located in Western New York:
•The Thomas Indian School, also known as the Gowanda School and the Thomas Asylum of Orphan and Destitute Indian Children, opened around 1855 and operated for over 100 years in Irving.
•The Tonawanda Mission School operated in Tonawanda between 1827 and 1845. A report from the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1843 outlines how children from Buffalo and Tuscarora who attended the school were only allowed to speak their language one day a week.
•Seneca Mission and School, which was sometimes called the Buffalo Creek Mission, operated in in Buffalo between 1818 and 1845. The federal report describes Seneca Mission and school as “a Christian mission to the Seneca people living in and around the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Western New York.”
Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels said, "We are grateful that three schools that operated in Western New York, including the Thomas Indian School, were identified in the report. We appreciate Congressman Higgins' vocal leadership and thank Secretary Haaland for recognizing the importance of the schools' inclusion.
“What happened at Indian boarding schools, regardless of who operated them, needs to be accounted for and atoned for. Countless lives were forever damaged. The disintegration of Native language, customs and communities, along with the strain caused to family structures, have spanned generations to this day. The promise of futures prematurely brought to an end will forever remain untold. What cannot remain untold are the experiences of those survivors who are still with us.
“I hope Secretary Haaland and her team will visit the Native Nations located within all ancestral homelands. Hear their stories, so the road toward healing can truly begin. This report is a start, not an end. True recognition and atonement require continued commitment and support. The Seneca Nation urges the DOI and the federal government to follow through with the recommendations included in the report, and to finally bring needed light to the pain suffered by far too many Natives for far too long."
Higgins led a bipartisan letter, signed by the entire New York House of Representatives delegation, calling on the secretary and assistant secretary to participate in a “Talking and Healing Circle” with New York Native American Tribes, an effort supported by the Seneca Nation. In the letter, the members write: “The Department’s efforts on this issue are significant – yet, if the goal of your Initiative is to shed light on the past traumas caused by Indian boarding schools, the Department needs to take a comprehensive approach and listen to the recommendations from tribal nations.”
As part of the release of the report, Haaland also announced launch of “The Road to Healing,” which will include meetings with Native American tribes – including people who attended federal Indian boarding schools. The full report and additional materials are available at https://www.bia.gov/service/federal-indian-boarding-school-initiative.