Truth and Healing about Indian Boarding Schools
Last month, I visited my local history museum for a special exhibit entitled, “Away from Home: Native American Boarding School Stories.” While I have learned about boarding schools in the past, this was an excellent opportunity for my spouse and our friend to learn more about this part of history too. A project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Away from Home tells some of the truth about the legacy of Indian boarding schools and what our ancestors experienced as children stolen from their families and sent far away for the explicit purpose of cultural assimilation. Brigadier General Richard H. Pratt, primary instigator of the boarding schools, stated in a speech that “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Our visit took place about a week before the grim discovery of the buried remains of 215 children found in a hidden mass grave on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. The news has prompted calls by Indigenous nations and groups, including the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), for accountability by the United States in its history of genocide against Native American people, including the utilization of at least 365 “schools” which inflicted abuse meant to assimilate Native people into white culture. Last year, NABS introduced a bill for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian boarding school policy in the U.S., and the organization is working to reintroduce the bill again this summer. The United States has never fully acknowledged its role in the cultural genocide and the abuse of Native children, a legacy which has had profound impacts on all Native people in the country.
As part of a research project this quarter for my history of federal Indian policy course, I stumbled into more of the history of boarding schools, and how involved religious organizations were in the development and implementation of them. The boarding school era began in 1819 with the passage of the “Civilization Fund Act,” which designated annual funding to be used by so-called “benevolent organizations” to “educate” and “civilize” Indian people. Those “benevolent organizations” were religious groups and the federal government. The Indian Bureau was established just five years later as the agency responsible for administering the fund. At first, Christian religious groups established schools nearby or within Indian communities, to teach the children how to speak, read, and write in English. Soon, however, they realized that since the children were still living in their communities, being taught their traditional ceremonies and culture by their parents and elders, that their goal of “acculturation” was not being accomplished. Therefore, they devised the residential school model to send the children far away from their homes, severing those familial ties. Many children were forbidden from seeing or communicating with their parents, and during summer breaks were sent to live with white families, often acting as domestic laborers for their white “hosts.”
In 1869, the federal government adopted the so-called “peace policy,” which intensified their efforts to move tribes onto reservations and empowered Christian religious organizations to have even more power inside those reservations. By 1872, at least 12 denominations of Christians became the federally appointed superintendents and staff in at least 69 of 75 reservations. Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1881 to 1885, explained the marriage of Christianity and the federal government in their shared goal to destroy Native culture this way: “In no other manner and by no other means, in my judgement can our Indian population be so speedily and permanently reclaimed from barbarism, idolatry, and savage life, as by the educational and missionary operations of the Christian people of our country.”
While the federal government did keep records of attendance at boarding schools, many of these records are stashed in various historic archives and not easily accessible. For this reason, and the fact that all my Potawatomi grandmother’s siblings have now walked on, I cannot yet confirm who in my family went to boarding schools. We do not know the exact number of our ancestors who were forced into these schools, but we do know that by 1926, at least 60,000 Native American children were in boarding schools, an estimated 83% of all Native children at that time.
It is an understatement to say that this legacy, in addition to everything else that has been done to intentionally destroy our cultures, is difficult to face. However, as I read the reports of the frustrations of the Christian missionaries and federal agents who complained that, despite everything, the people were still practicing our ceremonies and traditions—to the point where even these were outlawed in 1883—I am reminded of the persistence of our ancestors. It is in that space where I learn more about them and deepen my sense of gratitude for what they carried—not just the pain and trauma, but the threads of our languages, teachings, and stories, so that I may learn them too.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Read in context, this passage is about becoming free by claiming Christian faith (John 8:32). I wonder, though, if this can also apply to learning the truth of the boarding schools, and the many ways the federal government and religious organizations have conspired to eliminate Native cultures and identity. What would be possible in this country and in our tribal communities if a truth and healing process were to take place? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Mickki Garrity is a student at Northwest Indian College.
Pratt, R.H. (1892). Transcript of speech: http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/teach/kill-indian-and-save-man-capt-richard-h-pratt-education-native-americans
Price, H. (1882, October 10). Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Reprinted in the Documents of United States Indian Policy (1975). Prucha, F.P. (Ed.) University of Nebraska Press.
Talbot, S. (2006). Spiritual Genocide: The Denial of American Indian Religious Freedom, from Conquest to 1934. Wicazo Sa Review, 21(2), pp. 7-39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4140266
Teller, H.M. (1882, December 2). Rules Governing the Court of Indian Offenses.