KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Sites in Tennessee and North Carolina were listed in a first-of-its-kind federal report released Wednesday which identified over 500 deaths of Native American students at boarding schools run or supported by the U.S. government from the early 19th century to the 1960s.

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday released what Secretary Deb Haaland has called the first volume of an ongoing study of Native American boarding schools used to assimilate Indigenous children into white society, starting in the early 19th century and coinciding with the removal of many tribes from their ancestral lands.

Overall, the U.S. Interior Department’s investigation found that from 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.

Based on the investigation, approximately 19 Federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian child deaths. The Department expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of deaths at these boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.

“The Department expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands. Many of those children were buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites far from their Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, the Native Hawaiian Community, and families, often hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.”

Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report page 93

The investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the school system. The specific locations of burial sites associated with the Federal Indian boarding school system were not identified to protect against vandalism and other disturbances to those sites.

School sites have been identified in southeast Tennessee and the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains.

The current, singular Native American school identified by the U.S. Interior Department in Tennessee was the Brainerd Mission School located near Chattanooga, which holds an extensive history of Native Americans and their forced removal. Historians have included Chattanooga as part of the “Trail of Tears,” a route from when Native Americans were forcibly removed and relocated from their ancestral lands in the southeastern parts of the U.S. to parts of Oklahoma and western Arkansas between 1830-1850.

The 1820 Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs describes the establishment of Brainerd around January 1817, in which about 100 Cherokee youth and children of both sexes, are lodged, fed, and instructed at the expense of the establishment (page 163). The 1827 Department of War Indian Schools table shows Brainerd Mission, Cherokees, East Mississippi, as receiving federal support for a school. Supplemental research indicates that the Brainerd Mission was established in 1817 by Cyrus Kingsbury, working on behalf of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The site was a tract on South Chickamauga Creek, near present-day Chattanooga. It is believed the mission complex had thirty to forty buildings at one time. These included cabins for the children, the mission house, barns, a sawmill, and the graveyard. It was common practice for the students to work to defray their expenses. Thus, Brainerd is believed to be one of the first self-help schools to be established in America. Also, to provide the students with practical knowledge, the school is believed to be the first in America to teach scientific agriculture and domestic arts. After the Indian Removal in 1838, known as the infamous Trail of Tears, the mission was abandoned. At that time, most of the missionaries accompanied the Indians to their new home in Oklahoma.

Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report on Brainerd Mission School

In North Carolina, there were four total sites identified by the U.S. Interior Department in the report released Wednesday, with three located in or near the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest, and just outside of Asheville, N.C. The fourth site is located near Durham, N.C.

“Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live our their purpose on this earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system,” Haaland said, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years as kids.

The investigation found that the federal Indian boarding school system deployed “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies” in an attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, such as renaming from Indian to English names, cutting the hair of Indian children and preventing the use of native languages.

Boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing. The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.

As part of the ongoing study of the schools and burial sites, Secretary Haaland on Wednesday announced the launch of “The Road to Healing,” which will be a year-long tour that will include travel across the country to allow American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system the opportunity to share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support, and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history.

The investigative report called for as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, launched in June 2021, to investigate what leaders are calling “a comprehensive effort to address the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies.”

“The initial findings of the Department of Interior’s investigation have confirmed what indigenous and Cherokee families have long known: the federal government used boarding schools to erode the unique cultural identities of languages of our Native American people. Oklahoma was home to many boarding schools where our Cherokee people, and citizens of other tribal nations, were forced to live and assimilate. We applaud Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary Newland for the Interior’s ongoing investigation and the new $7 million investment from Congress to assist in helping the United States identify its next steps. It will take all of us having this difficult, but necessary discussion to plot a path forward and ensure the federal government upholds its responsibilities for all of Indian Country.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr