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Grace Benally
Special to Indian Country Today

An Arizona state representative wants an investigation of Indian boarding schools to find unmarked graves going back as far as 160 years.

State Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, White Earth Nation, sponsored and introduced the bill, requesting the Department of the Interior to investigate all 51 former and current Indian boarding schools in Arizona.

The bill, House Concurrent Memorial 2003, requests that the Department of the Interior use ground-penetrating radar to investigate the grounds in search of unmarked graves and return any discovered remains to the families or tribes of the students for appropriate repatriation and burial.

Between the 1860s and 1960s, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and were placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and churches.

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Across the United States, there were 367 Indian boarding schools, and 51 are located in Arizona, which is the second-highest number of any state in the nation compared to the 83 boarding schools in Oklahoma, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

State Rep. Jennifer Jermaine introduced a bill, identical to Sen. Steele’s bill, that would establish a committee to track murdered and missing indigenous women and analyze the data. (Photo by Kelsey Mo/Cronkite News)

The Interior currently has jurisdiction over most of the boarding school campuses, and the bill is asking them to prioritize Arizona and investigate these campuses because of the large number of schools in the state.

Jermaine said that many of the cold cases in Arizona are of missing indigenous children and they date back to the era of boarding schools.

“Our hopes are for closure for these families and extended tribal communities so that their loved ones can finally rest in peace,” Jermaine said.

Before giving his vote, state Rep. Daniel Hernandez Jr. said, “far too often some of the issues that happened during these schools have not been discussed and the only way we’ll be able to make sure that something like this never happens again is if we have a full accounting of what happened to give closure to the families.”

A majority of the boarding schools were closed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but dozens remain open, with 15 schools still boarding students in 2020, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Children as young as 4 years old were removed from their families and sent to various boarding schools. Students suffered physical, sexual, cultural, and spiritual abuse and experienced treatment that in many cases are constituted torture and child abuse, according to Jermaine.

“I have heard the most horrific stories of child abuse from elders within our local tribal communities. Most of them are too graphic and painful to repeat in a public setting,” Jermaine said, during a house education meeting with other members of the state.

The long-term effects of the children who did survive the experience of these school systems, who are now elders, lost their ability to speak their Native languages and ability to pass on cultural practices to their families.

“These boarding schools have affected not only the lives of those who attended but also their children and grandchildren,” said state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, Diné, who co-sponsored the bill.

Blackwater-Nygren said that the schools “created communities that have experienced intergenerational trauma as resulted from these schools that will last a lifetime and more.”

(Photo courtesy of Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren)

In the last 18 months, Canada has also started investigations into residential schools and the results turned up more than a thousand children in unmarked graves.

In the recent discovery of the unmarked graves in Indian boarding schools within the United States and Canada, Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, ordered an extensive review of the federal boarding school policies. The report is due to be on her desk on April 1. 

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