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Thursday, July 28, 2022

While Pope apologizes in Canada, U.S. reckons with legacy of federal Indian boarding schools

Children at Rehoboth Mission School, New Mexico
(from DOI report p. 39, credited: Hartog, C. (1910).
Rehoboth School [Photograph]. Indian mission sketches:
Descriptions and views of Navajo life, the Rehoboth Mission School
and the Stations Tohatchi and Zuni, 22. Gallup, N.M.: The Author.
Hathi Trust Digital Library)
The Pope's visit to Canada to ask forgiveness for the role of the Church has brought the tragedy of Indian boarding schools to light, but coverage has been thin on the U.S. legacy.

In the United States, Indian boarding schools were government policy and attempted a cultural genocide no less shamefully than the Church effort in Canada. This U.S. angle on the story hasn't been mentioned in my evening news the last few nights. But it was explicated by an Interior Department (DOI) report in May just this year and is being addressed in some media outlets (e.g., NPR).

The DOI report is just volume 1 in the ongoing investigation of the Federal Boarding School Initiative, "a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies," launched in June 2021. A transmittal letter at the front of the report explained:

This report shows for the first time that between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states (or then-territories), including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii. This report identifies each of those schools by name and location, some of which operated across multiple sites.

This report confirms that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system-with more site discoveries and data expected as we continue our research.

When I say "attempted cultural genocide," or "ethnocide," this isn't just me throwing around woke words. The DOI report detailed official policy dating to President Washington to "subdue[] the Indians" by assimilation, "helping the whites acquire desirable land." An 1803 memo by President Jefferson outlined a plan to relocate native Americans and push them into farming with the express aim that they would thereby fall into debt and have to cede their land. (And, I note, today still our corporate overlords are pushing all of us into asset ownership—homes, cars, cell phones—on the debt model rather than the capital model. You don't have to be native American for the strategy to make the rich richer and you poorer.)

Hundreds of thousands of children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools often distant from their home communities. That generations of people were so traumatized explains a lot about the fragile social and economic state of reservation communities today.

In military school fashion, the children's every 24 hours in the boarding schools were regimented. Using quotes from contemporary accounts (notes and sources omitted here), the report recounted:

"The children are improved rather in their habits than in what they learn from books." For example, to teach them "obedience and cleanliness, and give[] them a better carriage," Department records detail examples of organizing Indian male children "into companies as soldiers, and the best material selected for sergeants and corporals." "They have been uniformed and drilled in many of the movements of army tactics."

The report explained the means and ends of the boarding schools with revealing perspective:

Systematic identity-alteration methodologies employed by Federal Indian boarding schools included renaming Indian children from Indian names to different English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; requiring the use of military or other standard uniforms as clothes; and discouraging or forbidding ... Indian languages, ... cultural practices, and ... religions. "When first brought in they are a hard-looking set. Their long tangled hair is shorn close, and then they are stripped of their Indian garb thoroughly washed, and clad, in civilized clothing. The metamorphosis is wonderful, and the little savage seems quite proud of his appearance."

"No Indian is spoken[:]" "There is not an Indian pupil whose tuition and maintenance is paid for by the United States Government who is permitted to study any other language than our own vernacular—the language of the greatest, most powerful, and enterprising nationalities beneath the sun."

Then there was enforcement for violating the rules, including the prohibitions on language and religious practice. Whipping was the preferred punishment for attempted runaways.

Indian boarding school rules were often enforced through punishment, including corporal punishment, such as solitary confinement, "flogging, withholding food, ... whipping[,]" and "slapping, or cuffing." At times, rule enforcement was a group experience: "for the first offense, unless a serious one, a reprimand before the school is far better than a dozen whippings, because one can teach the whole school that the offender has done something that is wrong, and they all know it and will remember it, while it is humiliating to the offender and answers better than whipping."

Conditions for even compliant children were less than optimal. Citing prior DOI investigations in 1928 and 1969, the 2022 report stated:

The Department has acknowledged "frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate." Rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools are well-documented.

Moreover, the children's labor was used to operate the schools, for example, the children's clothes were made by female students as part of their vocational training.

Lest the severity of these conditions be confused with mere norms of less gentle times, we might consider that schools, even in the 19th century, rarely had their own graveyards. DOI found 53 burial sites at Indian boarding schools, at least six unmarked.

U.S. Indian boarding schools have been examined thoughtfully in media outlets: The Atlantic, National Geographic (limited free), NPR, N.Y. Times, and Time (paywall).

There are books, too, of course: Ward Churchill's well regarded Kill the Indian, Save the Man (2004); the first-person Pipestone (2010) by Adam Fortunate Eagle; and the documentary compilation Boarding School Seasons (2000) by Brenda J. Child.

There are online resource collections at The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Library of Congress.

My favorite media treatment in this area is a 2015 Radiolab segment, rebroadcast in 2018, "Ghosts of Football Past." Follow it up with a compelling reflection by Professor Justin De Leon.

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