ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-28-21):NEWS REPORT: The remains of more than 200 children have been located.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-10-21):NEWS REPORT: Hundreds of human remains in unmarked graves at two residential schools in Canada.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-8-21):NEWS REPORT: Just as it happened in Canada, many Indigenous children here in the United States were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools.
TEXT ON SCREEN: North Dakota
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 7-7-21):NEWS REPORT: Until now the devastating and at times fatal history has never been fully investigated.
DENISE LAJIMODIERE (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF OJIBWE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2006-2018): There was 23 kids that died when my father was at Chemewa boarding school. Some of them were killed running away. It says here, killed by train while running away. Gunshot while running away.
NARRATION: For years, Denise Lajimodiere has been researching the sprawling network of Native American boarding schools used by the U.S. government to assimilate native children.
DENISE LAJIMODIERE: This is a photo of my grandfather and his sister at, at boarding school. My grandpa’s nine years old. I want America to be aware of what happened to us. I call it America’s best kept secret.
DENNIS DECOTEAU (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF CHIPPEWA): It was in 65-66. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, they had a police force. And they were going around and they were rounding up some of these kids. And so, they came to our house. And they picked me up. And they put me in the police car. I was 11, and going on 12 when that happened. They put us on a bus. And were going to this boarding school. Wahpeton Indian Boarding School.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Wahpeton Indian School, Wahpeton, North Dakota
DECOTEAU DECOTEAU: I wrote down a couple of words when I, when I tried to explain, tried to describe my experience there. UmUm, abuse, neglect, bullying, torture, and pain.
NARRATION: The federal governments practice of sending Native American children to boarding dates back to the 1800s
TERRY CROSS (SENECA NATION, FOUNDING EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ASSOCIATION): The boarding schools were part of this larger assimilation policy, to de-Indianize the Indian and absorb people into the, the mainstream society. Children taken as young as four and five years old. And forbidden to practice their religion, or speak their language, or wear traditional clothing. And it was very intentional that they re-educate them to try to extinguish the native culture.
ARCHIVAL (UNIVERSITY SOUTH CAROLINA, 6-19-29):ANNOUNCER: The children as we find them, before we bring them to the government schools. We bring them in, clean them up. They are being rapidly brought from their state of comparative savagery and barbarism to one of civilization.
NARRATION: Between 1819 and 1969, the federal government with help from religious groups operated or supported over 400 schools across 37 states. Estimates show that more than a hundred thousand native children were taken from their families and placed in the schools.
Lajimodieres research has led her to archives across the country. And, its drawn her repeatedly back to the grounds of an old boarding school 100 miles from her home.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Fort Totten Indian Industrial School, Fort Totten, North Dakota
DENISE LAJIMODIERE (WALKING THROUGH THE SCHOOL): So we can go upstairs.
LORETTA MONETTE (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF CHIPPEWA): We walked in and all these strange people were standing there. People talking rough and mean. And jerking us in line and we didnt know from one day or another what was going to happen to us. We were all afraid of being there. When I asked my father why we were sent to boarding schools my dad said he had, they had no choice. We were really poor kids. And he said the superintendent had came to them and told them that we would all have to go away to school.
DENNIS DECOTEAU: I have flashbacks getting to the school. Im noticing that theyre cutting everybodys hair off. There were kids crying. I remember young, you know, young Native Americans. You know, I think that they, they prided themselves on their, their long hair.
DENISE LAJIMODIERE (IN THE SCHOOL): So these are the sinks, the troughs that the little boys would have come and wash up in the morning. Oh this is really in bad shape.
My father was beaten severely. Mom was also locked in closets for not speaking English.
Some more storage of the old desks.
And they were told, you know, You filthy stinking Indians, and you’ll never amount to anything.
And back here is the dungeon. So this is where boys were put when they didnt speak English.
DENNIS DECOTEAU: At Wahpeton there was 18 rooms on each wing. And they were all numbered. One, two, three, four, fiveAnd there was an equipment room that didnt have a number on it. So, we gave it that name, Room 19. And there was a little metal grill on the door about this big. And, one day, I noticed that there was some kids all standing around this grill. And you can hear this kid getting beaten in this room. One day, I took some food out of the cafeteria. And, I got into trouble for, uh, for doing that. And I ended up in Room 19. Your choice was the fiberglass fishing pole, or the razor strap.
LORETTA MONETTE: They would haul us out early in the morning before breakfast to go and work. We did hard labor, like, little, tiny, miniature slaves and, whose brains were just now starting to function for five, six, seven years.
When I look back and I think about the things that had happened to us, there was never anyone monitoring them. There were some of us that were getting abused. And couldnt go nowhere. They had nowhere to run. As a little kid, where to you run? We were taught so much hardship that they didnt teach us nothing except anger as we got older.
DENNIS DECOTEAU: It was difficult for me. I was kind of a lost, lost soul, you know, just stumbling around. Its hard to talk about it because it was something that I tried to block out of my mind.
DENISE LAJIMODIERE: My folks did not send me or my brother and sister to boarding school, but I still suffer from the effects of them having attended boarding school. My father was very verbally abusive. We were hit a lot. I always say, Where did they learn to be parents?
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-8-21): NEWS REPORT: A new reckoning over Americas painful relationship with Native Americans. Well now, a federal investigation is going to look into this dark chapter of American history.
NARRATION: In 2022 the Department of the Interior, under Native leadership for the first time, announced the initial findings of its unprecedented investigation into the boarding school system.
ARCHIVAL (DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, C-SPAN, 5-11-22): DEB HAALAND (INTERIOR SECRETARY): We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past. Today we take a critical step forward in that work.
ARCHIVAL (KARE, 5-11-22): NEWS REPORT: According to the report, 19 federal Indian boarding schools accounted for over 500 child deaths.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-11-22): NEWS REPORT: The report is a damning reckoning of America’s dark past.
LORETTA MONETTE: The government kept everything hush-hush. They dont want to be told that they, you know, things like this happened. I think it should come out and should be told.
NARRATION: The report is just the first step in what officials say will be part of a comprehensive process that aims to help bring accountability for a deeply consequential U.S. policy.
DENNIS DECOTEAU (RETIRED IN 2022): Im getting close to the end of my career, had quite a few other jobs in education. And made my way back to Dunseith, here, about four years ago. And I was thinking about these, uh, these students that I went to school with when I went down, down to my office there. And their faces are forever young in my mind. And a lot of them are gone now, of course you know. When I think about that, I think about, you know, what am, what am I doing here? What is my responsibility? You know, if I could have an impact on one childs life, especially a Native American one, then, you know, Ive, Ive accomplished my goal.
Divulging these stories that Ive kept in my vaults for 50 years is, I think its a way for me to heal. But those wounds are still there. Theyre still there, you know, after 50 years. So time doesnt heal all.