NOTE: As we take the month of November to celebrate the contributions of the First Nations, we want to witness also the sad truth of attempts at the genocide of the American Indians and their cultures. Particularly, we take this month to focus on the Indian Boarding Schools. We offer these four articles because as the saying goes “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, but also because we cannot support and celebrate our American Indian students, friends, co-workers and neighbors without understanding the context in which their very survival has taken place and their many contributions have been made.
Imagine a government that you don’t trust, that has already killed so many in your group and broken promise after promise, coming to your door and demanding that you hand over your child. The government officials promise your child will be back from their “school” in the summer but year, after year, after year goes by and your child is not returned. This and similar stories were repeated in First Nation homes from the late 1800s to the twentieth century as American and Canadian Indian children were taken from their homes to attend United States government-run Indian boarding schools.
At the schools, the children were forced to give up their native language as well as their spiritual and cultural practices in order to look and sound like European Americans. They were forced to wear western dress, to cut their hair (a mark of shame in many First Nations’ cultures), to have “kerosene rubs” to lighten their skin, to be indoctrinated into western religions and to endure long hours of forced work duties. Those who did not cooperate or tried to run away were often harshly punished and beaten. The geographic isolation and separation from their tribal and familial support system made far too many of these young children easy targets for sexual predators.
A 1928 study titled “The Meriam Report” found that infectious diseases were widespread at the schools because of insufficient nutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and weakening from overwork. Death rates for First Nations children were six and a half times higher than any other ethnic group. Yet, the schools continued. Young adults, some who were married with their own children, were also separated from their families and sent to the schools. At its height, there were 153 Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S. The highest recorded number of children in Indian Boarding Schools was 60,000 in 1973.
After the 1973 protest by American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a resurgence in American Indian pride and activism put an end to the worst of the boarding schools. Some boarding schools still exist today for students who would not otherwise have access to education on their reservations. Today, the staffs of these schools are primarily Native American. The students’ languages and cultures are supported. Young ones are no longer told that their spiritual practices worship “false gods”.
Below are statements from two people who attended Indian Boarding Schools. A friend of mine, storyteller Elizabeth Ellis, often says, “If someone can stand to experience it, then I can stand to hear it.”