U.S. Senate panel renews effort to establish federal Indian boarding school commission

WASHINGTON — The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advanced a bill this week establishing a federal “truth and healing” commission to examine Indian boarding school policies.

The bill is part of an effort to reckon with the United States’ history of government-run boarding schools that forcibly removed Native children from their homes. The schools subjected Indigenous youths to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and last year a federal study identified hundreds of deaths of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians associated with the schools. Twenty-one such facilities were based in Alaska.

James LaBelle Sr., an Alaska boarding school survivor and board president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, has spent years advocating for the legislation. He said he is encouraged by the bill’s committee passage and hopes to see it signed into law.

“I’ve been waiting over 50 years for people to acknowledge and hear our stories, mine included,” he said in an interview. “I think it’s been long overdue.”

The 10-person federally appointed commission would investigate and document assimilation practices, human rights violations and efforts to terminate Indigenous languages and cultures that the bill said were “in furtherance of the motto to ‘kill the Indian in him and save the man.’”

The commission would also develop recommendations for resources and assistance the federal government should provide, and for establishing a nationwide hotline for survivors, family members or other community members affected by the policies. Additionally, it would propose recommendations to prevent the removal of Indigenous children by state social services, foster care agencies and adoption services.

Since its introduction last month, 28 senators — led by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren — have signed on to the legislation. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the vice chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, is the only Republican co-sponsor so far.


“Fundamentally, this commission would provide a means to address the legacy and traumatic impacts of the Indian boarding school era on Native peoples and families,” Murkowski said at an Indian Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday.

“The scope and gravity of harm inflicted by these policies and schools — which the federal government funded and supported — is oftentimes just difficult to understand,” Murkowski said. “But because the U.S. government implemented these policies, it’s now incumbent on us to document what happened and how some of these institutions attempted to literally destroy Native cultures and to develop recommendations to heal from these harms.”

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The bill faces an uncertain future after failing to become law last congressional term. Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids led a companion bill in the House of Representatives last term that Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola co-sponsored. A spokesman for Peltola said she plans to sign onto the bill again when it is reintroduced in the House.

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan is not a co-sponsor on the bill. A spokesman said he is still evaluating the legislation and noted Sullivan’s mother-in-law, Mary Jane Fate, attended an Alaska boarding school in the 1950s.

“Senator Sullivan believes that forcing Indigenous children in Alaska and across the country into boarding schools and stamping out their culture and language was a dark chapter in our nation’s history,” the spokesman said in a statement. “He is committed to supporting solutions to help heal the trauma that still impacts individuals, families and communities. He believes that such healing begins with public awareness.”

Sullivan’s staff pointed to another bill Sullivan and Murkowski have signed onto that calls for a national day of remembrance for Native children who died while attending U.S. boarding schools.

At the committee meeting this week, the panel agreed to Republican-backed amendments on the legislation, including cost-cutting measures and improvements to the commission’s subpoena power.

First Alaskans Institute President Liz Medicine Crow, whose grandmother survived an Indian boarding school, testified in support of the measure in a June 2022 hearing on the legislation.

“This period of the boarding schools was a short period of time that exacted so much precise damage. This was intentional and purposeful harm,” Medicine Crow said at the time. “This commission will finally help us tell the truth about the United States’ history and it relationship with its Native people.”

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In Wednesday’s committee meeting, Murkowski told the story of Sophia Tetoff of St. Paul Island who attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. She died 4,500 miles from her home in 1906 and her remains were not repatriated until 2021.

“We know that thousands of Native children attended these schools, but what we don’t know is how many did not return home,” Murkowski said. “Sophia was one of those children who did not come home.”

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Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time reporter for the ADN based in Washington, D.C. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

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Riley Rogerson

Riley Rogerson is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C., and is a fellow with Report for America. Contact her at rrogerson@adn.com.