The American federal government is probing its history of Native children who were taken from families and forced into boarding schools. More than 350 of these institutions will be examined, including nearly 10 in California. This comes after the remains of more than 1,000 indigenous children across Canada were found at formerly state-sanctioned boarding schools there.
California Assemblymember James C. Ramos, who represents a wide swath of San Bernardino County and is a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, introduced a resolution in the state legislature in support of the federal investigation. KCRW speaks with him about his effort.
KCRW: What does the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative aim to discover?
James C. Ramos: “In Indian country, we've talked about this era of boarding schools and the dark period that it meant to our people. ... Native American students that were sent to boarding schools during this time succumbed to death. Families still talk about it on reservations that their family members went to these boarding schools and never came home. They were never given a clear answer of what truly happened to them during that time.
Some say that accidents happened while they were working. But there's always been that other idea that there was probably some assault. But when the people did pass away, there was never an investigation to show clearly how they passed away, and families were [not] notified that a burial took place. [That’s why] all the cemeteries come from some of the boarding schools that are there.”
These schools that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries were federally sanctioned. Why were these children taken from their communities and put into the schools?
“There was [an] Indian Civilization Act that was moved forward by the federal government that took the Indian people, students [and] children away from their homes to assimilate them and to take their language away. They couldn't even [speak] their language or practice customs or cultures.
That's what these boarding schools [had] done. And it was under the slogan of “Kill the Indian, save the man.” … And some were resistant to that change. We believe this investigation is going to uncover what truly happened during that time not only for Indian people but for the rest of the United States. … We see it unfolding in Canada. That same type of story is going to be unfolding here in the United States.”
Sherman Institute and St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Riverside County are among the schools that will be probed. What do you think investigators will find?
“My grandmother went to St. Boniface. [After] she was sent there, she couldn't speak the [native] language and couldn't follow the culture.
When they start to investigate the records, they're going to identify members that were there from different tribes. They will also start to identify those that are in the cemeteries, and hopefully that will lead to a better account of what truly happened.
Sherman Indian School is still functioning today. It's ironic because Sherman Indian High School currently serves under the Bureau of Indian Education. For many within Indian Country, it serves as [a] beacon of hope to make sure that our students are now graduating from high school.”
Is looking into these schools enough to address the atrocities?
“I think more needs to be done. Once we identify these areas, we have to be able to educate all those here in the United States and in the state of California. Then we talk about the issues that we're currently facing now with missing and murdered Indigenous women at a rate higher than any other ethnic group.”
The legislature is moving forward with your measure to add a Native American monument where a statue of Junipero Serra, the founder of the state’s mission system, once stood. What kind of impact do you think that will have?
“It’s a big impact. Acknowledging a horrid past here in the state of California starts with the exploration from the Spanish missionary system that viewed California Indian people as less than human and enslaved them to build the missions.”
California established the first-in-the-nation task force to study reparations for African Americans. Do you think something similar needs to be done for Native Californians too?
“I believe so. When you start to look at the impact from the early explorations — from the Russian exploration to the Spanish exploration — the whole state was covered with individual tribes with different dialects of language. It wasn't that everybody here spoke the same language. There were different dialects.
When some of those tribes were wiped off the earth, that's genocide because now that language will never be spoken again. Those people will never be able to move forward in an accord that they were before. … There has to be some talk — some discussion.”