James Ramos, a California State Assemblyman and historian, on Monday joined other tribal leaders across Southern California to support a federal investigation of Indian boarding schools operated under the U.S. government’s cultural assimilation program in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“U.S. Interior Sec. Deb Haaland ordered a probe into burial of students at Indian boarding schools after graves were found at Canadian sites. I cheer her historic move. SB Sun’s Joe Nelson looked into California’s schools and their history,” Ramos tweeted on Monday afternoon.
The nation-wide investigation, announced on June 22 by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first American Indian to serve as a cabinet secretary, came after more than 1,000 human remains were discovered in Indian residential schools across Canada, which triggered fury against the country’s bloody colonial past and ongoing mistreatment of the Indigenous people.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada were reportedly removed from their homes and forced to attend residential schools between the 1890s and as recently as 1996, during which more than 50,000 died of abuses.
Ten of the over 350 Indian boarding schools to be investigated in the United States were located in California, including Sherman Indian High School in Riverside County and St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in Banning, San Bernardino County.
Those boarding schools used to be built up as an extension of the Catholic mission system, according to local San Bernardino Sun newspaper. The federal government funded and oversaw the schools, and the Catholic church ran them as a means to subjugate and culturally assimilate indigenous children by forcibly removing them from their families and suppressing their American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian identities, languages and beliefs.
Sherman is one of the only four remaining Indian boarding schools in the country still operated by the federal government. The other three are in Oregon, Oklahoma and South Dakota separately.
St. Boniface was built in 1890 and the buildings were demolished by the City of Banning in 1974, according to the document from Banning Library District. The bricks were made by Chinese laborers and the actual construction of the school buildings was done by Indian students.
A file of Los Angeles Herald newspaper issued on May 9, 1892 said the school was “built for the purpose of educating the children of the 3,000 Mission Indians.” More than 100 Indian children were enrolled during the first year, and 123 in 1891.
Those “merry children, little ones and tall ones of the red race inhabiting the spacious rooms of the school, eager to learn and to follow the directions of the good Sisters of St. Joseph,” said the report at that time.
However, Ramos described another story to the San Bernardino Sun. “Those of us who grew up on Indian reservations, we heard about St. Boniface. My grandmother was sent to Boniface. They were forbidden to speak their language and practice their culture. It’s a dark part of history.”
He said Indigenous people long associated the purpose of the boarding schools with an infamous quote by Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Pratt was an American brigadier general and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“When you tell people that, some don’t believe it,” Ramos said.
Along with Ramos, other Southern California tribal leaders praised the investigation, noting that many Indigenous children died from disease and work-related accidents, and extreme physical and sexual abuse had not been ruled out.
“We applaud Secretary Haaland and the Department of Interior for undertaking this long-overdue inquiry into the terrible legacy and historical trauma wrought by the Indian boarding schools of the past,” said Charles Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon, which used to have an access road from the reservation to the St. Boniface school.
Martin was quoted by the San Bernardino Sun as saying that the recent discovery at the former Canadian boarding schools in Canada was heartbreaking, but not surprising.
“We are hopeful that this necessary examination will offer opportunities to grieve, to acknowledge the suffering and loss, and to begin meaningful healing and reconciliation,” Martin said.
Anthony Morales, chairman of the Gabrieleno San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, told the local newspaper that roughly 6,000 Indigenous people from his tribe and others nationwide were buried in and around the San Gabriel Mission.
He hoped the federal investigation into the boarding schools would shed light on what had happened. He recalled stories about federal agents whisking Gabrielino children away from their families and placing them at Sherman Indian High School, where they were locked inside their cramped dorms when not working, physically and sexually abused, and died of diseases such as tuberculosis.
“Our children weren’t geared to go there. They didn’t want to go there. They were forcibly taken,” Morales said. “The treatment, the condition bestowed upon our children, was horrific.”
Clifford Trafzer, a history professor at University of California, Riverside, who specializes in American Indian history, disclosed that all of the former boarding schools operated by the federal government had cemeteries, and students were treated like slaves, forced into hard labor and exposed to dangerous working conditions. Some died in work-related accidents.
Proving that any physical and/or sexual abuse occurred at St. Boniface, or any other boarding school for that matter may hinge mainly on interviews with tribal members, who received that information as it was passed down through oral tradition, Trafzer said.
“We’ve all heard about this, but you’re not going to usually find that in the documents because who’s going to abuse a child and then write about it?” he noted.