Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Native schools and stolen generations: U.S. and Canada

 photo CarlisleIndianIndustrialSchool_zpsf3823e74.jpg

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900)

The plight of Native American and First Nations children in the United States and Canada as stolen generations cannot simply be brushed off as “ancient” history.

Many readers here are aware of the history of Native American boarding schools, like Carlisle, depicted above, and the Canadian Indian residential school system, thanks to the ongoing efforts of editors and writers for Native American Netroots, founded by navajo, both on their site and here at Daily Kos. They have also provided critical coverage of the current South Dakota kidnapping of Indian children-placing them white foster care, in pieces written by Meteor Blades, and Aji.

Unfortunately, too many of our fellow citizens remain in complete ignorance.

I know this, because I am faced with the censorship of Native American history and invisibility of Native Americans living among us every day. Colleagues and other teachers I’m in touch with across the U.S. concur. When I teach freshmen introduction to cultural anthropology, I open the class with this history and the fact that the abuses are ongoing.

I have learned not to be surprised that only one or two students even know about it. I watch their faces as they absorb the disturbing film footage, look at photographs and read narratives, and as many of them weep, they also become angry and say, “Why aren’t we taught this?

My only answer is that we as a nation have failed to make this a national issue, nor has there been a national apology, or an effort towards reconciliation and redemption of the same magnitude I have discussed in the first two parts of this series about the two sets of stolen generations in Australia.

Canadian students are taught this nowadays.  

Part of the difference between the U.S. and Canada was this event that took place almost five years ago.

On Wednesday June 11, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time), the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools, on behalf of the Government of Canada.

full transcript

For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities. In the 1870’s, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate Aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools.  Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.  These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child”. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

One hundred and thirty-two federally-supported schools were located in every province and territory, except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  Most schools were operated as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United Churches. The Government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and M├ętis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.

The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language. While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.

As he looked into the faces of those First Nations people who had assembled there,

the PM spoke of the Resettlement Agreement, and most importantly of the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In moving towards healing, reconciliation and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian Residential Schools, implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began on September 19, 2007. Years of work by survivors, communities, and Aboriginal organizations culminated in an agreement that gives us a new beginning and an opportunity to move forward together in partnership.

A cornerstone of the Settlement Agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.

A start far different than the “Native American Apology Resolution” which is buried on page 45 of the 67-page-long 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, and a ceremonial signing by President Obama, Dec. 19, 2009.

What happened, and is still happening-even with problems in Canada-is a far cry from what we have done here.

Public apologies have long been instrumental in healing some of the most egregious transgressions against humanity, including apartheid in South Africa and the inter-tribal massacres of Rwanda. In fact, public admissions of responsibility by state actors are considered to be part of the international human rights framework for conflict resolution and reconciliation.

But the operative word here is “public.” The moment of the signing of the US Apology by Obama in December of 2009 was closed to the press. A public reading of the Apology wasn’t held until May 20, 2010, when Sen. Brownback read the resolution during an event at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. There were five tribal leaders present, representing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Pawnee nations.

The other marked difference between the Canadian and the US apologies is in the details of the admission. Canada’s work in repair and reconciliation has been specific and actionable. It refers to the harm done by assimilation practices of the government, and in particular the abuses of the residential school system. The US apology, as un-public as the delivery has been thus far, also misses the opportunity to list the transgressions.

One semester, I had a young Mohawk student from upstate New York in my class and she shared about how this had happened to her mother, and how it had traumatized the entire family. She knew nothing of apologies. Only of the ongoing pain.

In order to begin to make reparations, and move forward, the history must be stripped of lies and censorship and it cannot simply be the obligation of our first people to go it alone.

No one tells it better in song than Canadian-American Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte Marie in her epic lament, and history “My country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying.”

Now that the longhouses breed superstition

You force us to send our toddlers away

To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions.

Forbid them their languages, then further say

That American history really began

When Columbus set sail out of Europe, then stress

That the nation of leeches that conquered this land

Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.

And yet where in your history books is the tale

Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth,

Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed…

Yet how many iPods of our young people hold this tune?

How many young people have even heard of her?

Let us go back and look at some of the history right here in the U.S.

 photo RichardHenryPratt_zps6c304e74.jpg

Lieut Richard Henry Pratt, Founder and Superintendent of Carlisle Indian School

Probably one of the most racist statements I have read in our admittedly racist history was from the lips of Richard Henry Pratt, who founded Carlisle and engineered the forced assimilation policy.

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

We are just now making a great pretence of anxiety to civilize the Indians. I use the word “pretence” purposely, and mean it to have all the significance it can possibly carry. Washington believed that commerce freely entered into between us and the Indians would bring about their civilization, and Washington was right. He was followed by Jefferson, who inaugurated the reservation plan. Jefferson’s reservation was to be the country west of the Mississippi; and he issued instructions to those controlling Indian matters to get the Indians there, and let the Great River be the line between them and the whites. Any method of securing removal – persuasion, purchase, or force – was authorized. Jefferson’s plan became the permanent policy. The removals have generally been accomplished by purchase, and the evils of this are greater than those of all the others combined. . . .

“Put yourself in his place” is as good a guide to a proper conception of the Indian and his cause as it is to help us to right conclusions in our relations with other men. For many years we greatly oppressed the black man, but the germ of human liberty remained among us and grew, until, in spite of our irregularities, there came from the lowest savagery into intelligent manhood and freedom among us more than seven millions of our population, who are to-day an element of industrial value with which we could not well dispense. However great this victory has been for us, we have not yet fully learned our lesson nor completed our work; nor will we have done so until there is throughout all of our communities the most unequivocal and complete acceptance of our own doctrines, both national and religious. Not until there shall be in every locality throughout the nation a supremacy of the Bible principle of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, and full obedience to the doctrine of our Declaration that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights,” and of the clause in our Constitution which forbids that there shall be “any abridgment of the rights of citizens on account of race, color, or previous condition.” I leave off the last two words “of servitude,” because I want to be entirely and consistently American.

Inscrutable are the ways of Providence. Horrible as were the experiences of its introduction, and of slavery itself, there was concealed in them the greatest blessing that ever came to the Negro race-seven millions of blacks from cannibalism in darkest Africa to citizenship in free and enlightened America; not full, not complete citizenship, but possible-probable-citizenship, and on the highway and near to it.

There is a great lesson in this. The schools did not make them citizens, the schools did not teach them the language, nor make them industrious and self-supporting. Denied the right of schools, they became English-speaking and industrious through the influences of association. Scattered here and there, under the care and authority of individuals of the higher race, they learned self-support and something of citizenship, and so reached their present place. No other influence or force would have so speedily accomplished such a result. Left in Africa, surrounded by their fellow-savages, our seven millions of industrious black fellow-citizens would still be savages. Transferred into these new surroundings and experiences, behold the result. They became English-speaking and civilized, because forced into association with English-speaking and civilized people; became healthy and multiplied, because they were property; and industrious, because industry, which brings contentment and health, was a necessary quality to increase their value. The Indians under our care remained savage, because forced back upon themselves and away from association with English-speaking and civilized people, and because of our savage example and treatment of them. . . .

How telling to see such deep racism and white supremacy wedding his attitudes toward “black savagery” to that of the “red savages” he vowed to exterminate, not in body but in spirit and culture.  

He knew that if Native Americans, no matter how diminished, lived together on reservations, passing on their language and culture, they would be able to resist complete and total elimination.

Let’s repeat that one jarring phrase again, “Kill the Indian in him.”

And that is what this nation set out to do, not just at Carlisle.  

Often, however, they killed the spirit and the body.

I think of the case of 16-year-old Cindy Sohappy, who, intoxicated, was left alone in a holding cell in her school, in 2003:

Some adult federal employees of the school left her behind bars in a holding cell. They did not take her to a medical facility for observation or detoxification. They did not even watch her to see if she was breathing or choking. They left her behind in a jail-style, closet-sized room. According to their own procedures, the Chemawa employees were supposed to check on students in any of the four cells every 15 minutes.

A videotape of her holding cell shows that no one checked on her when she started convulsing or when she stopped moving. Cindy Sohappy was left behind bars for three full hours. When the grown-ups finally attended to her, she was dead.

Kill the Indian.

There are many films, books and videos that are available, free, that tell the stories, far better than I can.

I show “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School“:

“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School” is a Native American perspective on Indian Boarding Schools. This DVD produced by Rich-Heape Films, Inc. uncovers the dark history of U.S. Government policy which took Indian children from their homes, forced them into boarding schools and enacted a policy of educating them in the ways of Western Society. This DVD gives a voice to the countless Indian children forced through a system designed to strip them of their Native American culture, heritage and traditions.

We Were Children

As young children, Lyna and Glen were taken from their homes and placed in church-run boarding schools. The trauma of this experience was made worse by years of untold physical, sexual and emotional abuse, the effects of which persist in their adult lives. In this emotional film, the profound impact of the Canadian government’s residential school system is conveyed unflinchingly through the eyes of two children who were forced to face hardships beyond their years.  

And the docudrama “Where the Spirit Lives,” which had music from Buffy Sainte Marie, and is on YouTube.

Today we can listen to the testimony of many of the survivors.

Lakota woman Joanne Tall describes the abuse she received as a 12 year old girl in a “christian” boarding school.

The Canadian government has allocated funds in a class action settlement to survivors.

Four years later there are still many problems to be faced.

Labrador Innu and Inuit Survivors, were left out of the settlement, which is documented in Hear Our Voices.

Grassroots activism is on the rise, the Idle No More, movement is growing.

There is no excuse any more for us to be ignorant of this history and the ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples-here and in Canada. It is important that we continue to pressure for and address reparations strategies.

Cross-posted from Daily Kos


  1. DeniseVelez

    I have found evidence of it while doing excavations.  I am also aware of, and have visited the reservations here in NY – yet few of my students have ever been to one.

    We have so much educating to do.

  2. princesspat

    And I remember the older Lummi Indian man I was fortunate to know telling me it was his mothers job to hide the children on the island so they would not be taken to boarding schools. Portage Island is accessible at low tide, and is uninhabitated. I was a young mother at the time, and the thought of children hiding there made a lasting impression.

    This article in The Journal of American Indian Education gives more of the history….

    Traditional forms of education were severely restricted due to social, economic, and political changes that were forced on the people (Tyler, 1964). Families were urged, if not required, to send their children away to boarding schools. The federal policy of “deculturalization” and “Christianization” of Native children was the educational philosophy for the curricula of those schools (Hayes, 1973). For the Lummi people, the Tulalip Boarding School at Tulalip, Washington was the closest Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Children from other tribes of the Puget Sound area were also sent to Tulalip (Interview, Isadore Tom, 1979).

    It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand how the drastic changes of the closing decades of the 19th century impacted the Lummis. People who had lived according to traditional beliefs and systems were alienated, by force and without compensation, from all they had once known as their own (Stein, 1975). Extreme poverty became a community norm. Socially and emotionally, the Lummi tribe was in a state of trauma. None of the I tribal members were exempted.

    Fortunately The Northwest Indian College is thriving and offering  quality accredited educational opportunities to The Lummi Nation students.

    The educational philosophy of Northwest Indian College is based upon the belief that the opportunity of post-secondary education must be provided within the Native American community. Northwest Indian College is committed to the belief that self awareness is the foundation necessary to: achieve confidence, esteem, and a true sense of pride; build a career; create a “self-sufficient” life-style; and promote life-long learning. It is also committed to the belief that a self-awareness program must include a study of Native American culture, values and history.

    Thanks for writing about this important topic…..your students and your readers are fortunate to have this learning opportunity.

  3. Portlaw

    can t’ bear to look at that photo of those children? I will have nightmares tonight but that, of course, is nothing compared to what happened to these dear innocent children. Shameful.

  4. and it seems to be cross-cultural, especially about the evil that we do to each other. Strangely, it appears not to be related (at least not strongly) to whether it is something that our own people did.

    When I lived in Israel I knew a young Danish woman (not Jewish) who had moved to Israel to be with her boyfriend. She knew nothing of the holocaust, not even that it had occurred. Quite something when you realize that the Danes were among the very few nations who did the right thing.

    And yet….. we must make the effort to educate ourselves and each other, for this too is human. Every  , every Nazi, every proponent of the extermination of the Indians (or of their culture), every witch burner, every member of the Spanish Inquisition, was human; as were all their victims.

    At the same time, I think we owe it to the heroes to recognize them and remember them; and every one of the horrors I mention had heroes – some known and someh not so known. Every one of them had people who stood up and said, in voice loud or soft, “This is wrong”.

    I think it would be a great mitzvah to try to collect as many stories of the heroes as we could; I also think it would make a great book.

    There is Yad Vashem and there is the Avenue of the Righteous. Every set of victims deserves the former, and every savior of victims deserves the latter.

Comments are closed.