The nation's longest-serving Native American member of Congress said he is very supportive of a U.S. Interior Department investigation into the scope and impact of the nation's federal Indian boarding school system, which left a large footprint in Oklahoma.
Volume 1 of the investigative report was released last month and showed that Oklahoma had the highest concentration of the federally supported boarding schools -- 76 of 408.
The schools operated from 1819 to 1969, the report said, with the "twin goals of cultural assimilation and territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children."
"A lot of the children sent there did not go there by choice," said Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK4), a member of the Chickasaw Nation and 10-term member of Congress. "And there’s no question that in many cases the aim was to, frankly. make them lose their own culture— they were forbidden to speak their own languages, they were for bidden to wear their own traditional tribal clothing or hairstyles."
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to ever hold a Cabinet position, said the investigation is the first step of many that need to be taken "to strengthen and rebuild the bonds within native communities that federal Indian boarding schools set out to break."
Rep. Cole calls Haaland a good friend and believes what she and the department are doing is important work.
"You want folks to be educated about this and understand it, and understand the wounds that were left in some cases," said Cole in a recent interview,
Investigators have also discovered, to date, 53 burial grounds at the schools, some marked and some unmarked, and say they expect to find more.
Cole said, like the Tulsa Race Massacre which many Oklahomans have only recently learned about, the Indian boarding schools are a "hard part of our history."
"I’m not a big believer in reparations or that sort of thing," Cole noted, "but knowing what different groups have gone through helps make sure that we never do that again."
There's been no suggestion by Secretary Haaland that financial reparations are in order, but she did announce plans for a year-long 'healing tour', where American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian survivors of the schools would get the opportunity to share their stories.