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'She would hide in the corner and hope the rats wouldn’t get her'

The air was smoky with welcome outside the gathering hall on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

Salmon cooked over alder chips, and sage burned outside the entrance.

Inside, Deb Haaland, the country's first Native American secretary of the interior, told hundreds she was there to hear their stories.

Sitting next to her, Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary of the interior, explained why they were there.

"As we continue investigating the federal Indian boarding school system, it paints a history that our federal records can’t tell the whole story," he said. "We need more. We need to hear from you to help tell that."

RELATED: 'I'm still healing.' Boarding school survivors recount stories of abuse, trauma

Washington state is the sixth stop on Haaland's Road to Healing tour. There were 15 boarding schools here. The last one closed in the 1970s.

Most schools had a cemetery because so many kids died there.

Jewell James, a Lummi tribal member and carver, shared the experience of his mother, who went to Cushman Indian School in Tacoma.

"She would talk about how, at the age of 3, they would put you in the basement with rats," he said. "She would hide in the corner and hope the rats wouldn’t get her."

Haaland has pushed the federal government to take responsibility for what happened at the boarding schools.

She said next steps are to look into marked and unmarked graves of the children who died at the schools.

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