It is a monumental task to uncover the history of boarding schools

They were seated in a dusty box, which had been untouched for many years. It contained black-and-white photos of Apache students, who were among the first to be sent to New Mexico's boarding school.

It is a monumental task to uncover the history of boarding schools

The first photo showed the girls wrapped in blankets and wearing moccasins. The second photo, which was taken only weeks later, showed the children in plaid uniforms, high heels boots, and wide-brimmed straw caps.

Larry Larrichio, adjunct history professor, said that he came across the 1885 photos while researching for a military outpost. He immediately recognized their importance.

These images show the U.S. government's systematic effort to integrate Indigenous youth into white society. This included removing them from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. This effort lasted more than 100 years and is now the center of a huge undertaking by the U.S. government. It seeks to expose the troubling legacy of U.S. policies regarding Native American boarding schools. There were many reports of sexual and physical abuse.

"When I pulled out that photo, it brought a tearful to my eyes. Larrichio, who is a research associate at the University of New Mexico's Latin American and Iberian Institute, said that she was struck by the beautiful faces of the Apache girls dressed in Native costumes and then the ugly American bonnets. It just knocked my butt."

The U.S. The U.S. Interior Department began examining records to identify past boarding schools as well as the names and tribes students. This project will also attempt to identify how many children died while attending these schools, and bury them in unmarked graves.

In an effort that started years before, nine Native American children who were more than 100 years ago died while attending a Pennsylvania government-run school were disinterred and handed to their relatives in a ceremony Wednesday. They could then be returned to the Rosebud Sioux tribal lands of South Dakota.

Deb Haaland is a Laguna Pueblo member and Interior Secretary. She was the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency.

Larrichio's discovery suggests the enormity of the task, with each piece of information leading to another avenue that must be explored.

Some records are kept by the National Archives and the agency, but most are scattered throughout jurisdictions, from the bowels university archives like the ones Larrichio discovered to the offices of government, churches archives and personal collections.

This is not to mention any records that were lost or destroyed throughout the years.

Since almost a decade, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has worked to gather information about these schools. The Minnesota-based group, which is funded by grants and independent researchers from across the country has identified almost 370 schools. It estimates that hundreds of thousands of Native American children have passed through these schools between 1869-1859.

"It's going be a monumental task. The initiative that was launched in the Interior is great. But it's a brief timeline and we'll require further investigation," stated Christine Diindiisi McCleave (CEO of the group) and a citizen from the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation.

The coalition understands firsthand the difficulty of uncovering truth. For information on the schools, the coalition filed public records requests years ago with the federal government. Diindiisi McCleave stated that the government did not have any answers.

She said that records were only found for 40% of the schools she identified so far. Unknown is the fate of the remaining.

Research and family accounts reveal that there were many children who did not make it home.

The Interior Department has taken a first step towards uncovering more history. Diindiisi McCleave, along with others, are reiterating their call for a federal commission in the U.S. similar to one in Canada where more than 1000 remains of children were recently at residential schools.

The Indian Civilization Act of 1819 was one of the laws that was passed in the United States to support Indian boarding schools. Over 150 years ago, Indigenous children were removed from their communities and forced to attend boarding schools that emphasized assimilation.

Tribal communities have felt strong emotions from the discovery in Canada and renewed attention in the U.S., including anger, grief, and deep longing for healing.