By Sidney Wegener
In 1892 Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, famously stated that his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Native American boarding schools were first established in the United States during the mid-1800s in an effort to continue genocide against Native people under the guise of education. Children were often taken from their families and away from f reservations by missionaries or militiamen, either by force or through manipulation. When children (aged from four years old to teenagers) were taken to a boarding school, they were subjected to violent processes of total institutionalization. They were stripped of their clothes, their hair was cut, and any use of native language resulted in brutal beatings. Sexual abuse was all too common. Next to every prison-like school there was always a graveyard. The generational trauma caused by United States boarding schools greatly contributed to the breakdown and erasure of Native American tribes.
The education that these children received was initially geared specifically towards producing domestic and unskilled laborers to serve white, capitalist purposes. Very few boarding school students graduated with an education comparable to the wealthy, white men in charge of these institutions. In the early years, a handful of Native Americans – always men – travelled with school officials as examples of successfully civilized Indians to gain support for boarding schools. Later, the institutions claimed that children would learn skills in boarding schools that they could bring back to their communities to bolster the civilization of their tribes. The white, colonial United States’ idea of civilization was (and still is) destruction of Native American culture. However, the children who survived and returned to their families were equipped with basic math knowledge and Eurocentric cooking skills which were inapplicable to the needs of their communities. The real purpose was to prevent the reproduction of Native American culture and assimilate younger generations into white, colonial culture. Thinly veiled as an education, genocide was the name of the game.
Children were taken away from hundreds of different tribes and imprisoned in boarding schools where they spoke different languages, came from different cultures, and had experienced a vast number of traumas. Despite the abuse, these children often remained resistant. As they were beaten into speaking English, they discovered a way to communicate with one another. In response to the violent process of erasing indigenous languages, Native children created pan-tribal solidarity and undermined the United States’s goal of total assimilation. The loss of languages may be one of the most devastating effects of the Native boarding school legacy. Too often, children returned home after years of living behind the brick walls of their educational institution and could not communicate with their families. They no longer spoke a common language, younger generations lost their Native tongue. The death of Native languages directly impacted tribal cultures by disrupting the generational passing of knowledge and tradition which was taught through oral storytelling and histories.
In many ways, the boarding schools set up by the United States achieved their genocidal goals by continuing to kill thousands of Native Americans, physically and sexually abusing children, and destroying their tribal identities. However, the resistance that arose from pan-tribal unification within boarding schools created a new mode of mobilization for Native child survivors. While colonial domestic and vocational labor skills were not beneficial to the communities that the students returned to, English literacy provided them with a tool that could be used to disarm the oppressor. Native American boarding school graduates were generally able to read treaties and legal documents. These were frequently used by colonial powers to deceive Indigenous people in order to take their property or consent to relinquishing other rights they had to livelihood. In addition to defending and protecting their communities, some Natives became writers and educators themselves. People such as Esther Belin, Lee Maracle, Steven Heape, and Gayle Ross have become storytellers who speak against Native American oppression and retell history.
Films, poetry, autobiographies, scholarly papers, novels, oral, and written histories are now widely published in North America. Yet, Native American history continues to be taught in American public schools through false narratives which ignore the roughly four hundred years of genocide. The truth behind Native American boarding schools sheds light on the horrific legacy of the United States’ treatment of Native people. Although reeducating oneself on Native American history should be a year-round endeavor, November is the designated month which we are to pay attention to Native American Heritage. I urge you to read, watch, or listen to at least one story from a Native boarding school survivor. Below are some sources.
Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.
Poetry: From the Belly of My Beauty, by Esther Belin
Literature: I Am Woman, by Lee Maracle
Film: Our Spirits Don’t Speak English, produced by Rich-Heape Films, narrated by Gayle Ross