Rep. Cole Pushing For Indian Boarding School Investigation Bill

A full investigation and accounting of the indoctrination and abuse that took place at Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma and across the country is the aim of bipartisan legislation now under consideration on Capitol Hill.

Monday, March 18th 2024, 5:31 pm



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A full investigation and accounting of the indoctrination and abuse that took place at Indian boarding schools in Oklahoma and across the country is the aim of bipartisan legislation now under consideration on Capitol Hill. The bill's primary Republican sponsor is Oklahoman and Chickasaw Nation member Representative Tom Cole.

The Fourth District's Cole says there's no getting around the fact that Oklahoma played a major role in what was a nationwide effort to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children at boarding schools across the country. Various studies show as many as 80 Indian boarding schools operated in Oklahoma.

"We had more Indian boarding schools than any other state by a longshot," said Cole. "I mean, I think almost one in five were located in Oklahoma."

For 150 years, up until the 1970s and 1980s, these government-sanctioned schools sought to eliminate traditional American Indian ways of life and replace them with mainstream Christian culture.

"Some of the practices were horrific," Cole (R-OK4) said in a recent interview, "we have children that were lost, that were accounted for."

The outrage over the treatment of indigenous children in the U.S. was spurred, at least in part, by a public reckoning in Canada, where similar schools operated with similar goals. In both places, both the federal government and religious institutions were the driving forces behind the schools. Pope Francis traveled to Canada in 2022 to issue an apology, begging "forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples."

It was also in 2022 that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the nation's first Native American Interior Secretary, made clear the U.S. federal government was also seeking to make amends for prior wrongs.

"The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by forced family separation and cultural eradication which were inflicted upon generations of children as young as four years old, are heartbreaking and undeniable," Haaland said through tears in May 2022.

"We need to think about these things," Cole said this month, "learn the lessons, and, frankly, allow for some healing."

That's precisely the goal of the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act of 2024. Cole and his co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) introduced the legislation last month.

"It’s actually not a Republican or Democrat thing," said Cole, "it’s just an effort to understand one of the darker chapters in American history and learn from it."

The legislation would create a commission and give it up to six years to conduct a "comprehensive interdisciplinary investigation of Indian boarding school policies," including their social, cultural, economic, emotional, and physical effects. Cole says it would be paid for with unused Covid funds; he believes it has a realistic chance of becoming law.

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