For centuries native communities in the USA and Canada have been murdered, displaced and broken by the European colonies that “discovered” them. Though there have been some attempts at admitting past mistakes and conciliation (as Mark Charles states in one of his TED talks, for there to be reconciliation there has to be a pre-existing moment of harmony), these mistakes are widely forgotten, especially in history books.
From the right to land discovery of the US’ founding fathers, the genocide of most native American nations, to the underwhelming definition of what a human is in most documents dating back to not so long ago, the colonies and now countries, the USA and Canada, have tried many times to complete the colonisation of the lands their ancestors “discovered”.
In the 19th century, the US Board of Indian Commissioners report said that “the most reliable statistics prove that the Indian population taken as a whole, instead of dying out under the light and contact of civilization, is steadily increasing, an obstacle for total “American expansion”. The Indian is evidently destined to live as long as the white race, or until he becomes absorbed and assimilated with his pale brethren. (…) As we must have him among us, self-interest, humanity and Christianity require that we should accept the situation and go resolutely to work to make him a safe and useful factor in our body politic.”
One of the men that went to resolutely work to make Indians safe and useful was Richard Henry Pratt. He started an assimilation experiment with prisoners of war. He taught them how to speak English, read, write and how to do labour. He cut their hair and dressed them in military uniforms.
He took his results to the Federal Government and said that he discovered that they were capable of being civilized and was granted funding for his program.
In 1879 Pratt opened the first boarding school for Native American children. His motto: Kill the Indian and save the man.
Thousands of Indian children were forcibly taken from their homes and put into the boarding school. Christine Diindiisi McCleave, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, stated that “they tried to make them ashamed of being Indian, and transform them into something other than that”. They cut their hair short, were given new names and were forbidden to speak their native languages.
Pratt’s success resulted in the opening of over 300 boarding schools. In 1900 there were 20,000 thousand Native American children in boarding schools; by 1925 there were more than 60,000.
Families that were opposed to sending their children to boarding schools were even incarcerated in places like Alcatraz or found their food rations withheld. Some parents even camped outside the schools to be close to their children until this also became illegal.
Few students managed to maintain the knowledge of their first language and culture; most students ended up not being able to communicate with their relatives. In the tear-jerking film, Our Spirits don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School by Rich Heape, Andrew Windyboy talks about the horrors he went through, and really shows the psychological effects these schools had on Native American children. “They caught me speaking my mother tongue, I didn’t know English so whenever something came out… I was punished and laughed at by the other kids. I lost my voice; if I spoke I was punished.” “Someday somebody has to hear me; I hope no one ever has to go through this. We have to have our own language because when we talk to our spirits, they don’t understand English; they look at you and ask “what are you saying?” For the white man, it’s a terrible shame, for having treated people like this. Because we are people. We just want to be accepted.”
Alongside the removal of Native American children, disconnecting them from their land, a number of US policies started to infringe on Native American Lands. In less than five decades, Native Americans had lost two-thirds of their land.
Over time the brutality of the boarding schools (physical, psychological and sexual abuse, forced labour) started to surface, and after a 1928 report (commissioned by the US government) displayed the atrocities committed in these schools, many were forced to close. In the 1960s Indigenous activism rose alongside the Civil Rights movement. By the 1970s more schools had been forced to shut down.
Among the Native American children sent to Assimilation schools or boarding schools was Dennis Banks, who would become a founder of the American Indian Movement. “They wanted to destroy our identity; they put us in these boarding schools. Over 100,000 children were taken from their homes. My mother and grandmother were pulling me away from these men that had come to take me. Multiply that scene by 100,000 children. That destroyed the language, the songs”. “There was corporal punishment, and I heard the screams and I was part of the screams, I hear them today” “I said I will NEVER forgive this government for allowing a policy like that. “
The government handed over the control of the remaining schools to tribes to be run alongside the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But, as the boarding school program was fading, another assimilation program was taking shape: adoption. The aim was to stimulate the adoption of Indian children to non-Indian homes, promoting the adoption of the “forgotten child”. It was a different way of carrying on with the assimilation program that benefitted the Federal Government as adoption was cheaper than Federal Boarding Schools.
To be continued…
Sources: “How the US stole thousands of NA children” Vox Youtube; “How the US suppressed NA identity” Telesur English; Interview excerpts from Andrew Windyboy; Richheap.com; the 3 most misunderstood words in US History TEDx Talks Mark Charles.