Basic Call to Consciousness
History & Imagery
In the Beginning
First Nations Governance
Trail of Tears
Impact of European Immigrants
Called ‘Indian’ or....
Cultural Genocide - Boarding schools
Native Values &
Way of Life
Living Two Lives
Leaders or Rulers
Written or Oral
Cultural Genocide - Boarding schools
The U.S. government and the missionaries decided to ‘kill the Indian and save the man’. The best way to do this is, in the shortest period of time--extricate the Indian out of the individual. To this end, the government and the Church colluded by removing First Nations' children, forcibly, to boarding schools far from their homes on the reservations. The children were indoctrinated into Americanization - they were forbidden to speak their languages, often separated from their siblings, their culture and spiritual practices destined to be stamped out--by so-called civilized Christianity cruelly forced upon the children by the harsh hands of nuns and not uncommon sexually exploitive priests.
An Inupiat woman from Alaska-in Messengers of the Wind-- was born into the Inupiat tribe in 1935 in Kanakanak, a fishing area above the Aleutian chain. She says of her mission boarding school experience: “School separated us; I hardly ever saw my little sister or brothers. We had to speak English, so most of us forgot our language. We couldn’t even ask about our traditions or stories-nobody did. We didn’t have names, we were called by numbers-like, I was Miss 14. We woke up by a bell, we marched to church by a bell, we marched to class by a bell, we marched to meals by a bell-we lived by bells. We were little frozen people. All the time I was growing up forced away from family into boarding school, nobody ever hugged me. We were beaten regularly, for everything.”
U.S. authorities took Native children from their homes attempting to indoctrinate, and often beat the Indian out them. Now First People are fighting the theft of their language, their culture, and their childhood, itself. “Native America knows all too well the reality of the boarding schools,” writes Native Bar Association President who attended a North Dakota boarding school: “standing in line single-file for hours without moving a hair, as a lesson in discipline; where mouths were scrubbed with lye and chlorine solutions for uttering our Native words. These are examples of the grossest human rights violations because it targeted children and was the tool for perpetrating cultural genocide. Ignoring this issue is to ignore the human rights of indigenous peoples, not only in the U.S., but around the world.”
A Northwest Native woman explained to me that her grandmother (born in the beginning 1900’s) never taught her any words of their Native language - because, as a child in board school, grandmother’s mouth had been ‘washed out with soap’ for speaking her native language. Because of that, even decades later, she could not bring herself to share her traditional language with her granddaughter.
Decades later, a Navajo woman speaks:
“We were marched around like little cadets, girls herded around in one area, boys in another
all you could do was numb yourself to the whole ordeal. Some of the teachers were very demeaning and made us feel ashamed of our culture. We were forced to wear clothes, a type that were unnatural to us. We couldn’t wear our hair loose; it had to be curled, or braided, or piled up on top of our heads to fulfill the school’s idea of the ideal white girl. One year at Christmas us girls were given Barbie dolls - Barbie had a size D bust and a nineteen-inch waist, long legs and blond hair. We all thought we were supposed to look like her.”
Native scholars describe the destruction of their culture as a soul wound, from which First Nations People have not healed. Embedded deep within that wound is a pattern of sexual and physical abuse that perpetuated in the boarding school system. A history of unmonitored and unchecked physical and sexual aggression perpetrated by school officials against vulnerable and institutionalized children.
The stories of abuse are well known. Some children died in the schools. Many others were emotionally scarred for life. In the independent film--Older Than America--there is a line that says: “There are two ways to conquer a nation--you kill the people, or you take away everything that defines who and what they are. That’s what these schools were trying to do -- take away what defines us,” says Christine Walker, film’s director. “And what defines us are our customs, our language, our traditions -- those things that take us back and connect us to our ancestors and our history.” Her father, who attended boarding school as a child, later committed suicide as an adult.
Cody Lightning, 20, a Northern Cree and the son of the director, he has a small part in this film. Lightning says the movie opens a painful wound for many of his people. “A lot of the elders don’t want to talk about what went on in boarding school. And then there are others that are totally open and willing to share everything. It was pretty messed up. And the way it’s just affected the generations; it was really poisoning in a lot of way.”
Rampant sexual abuse at reservation schools continued until the end of the 1980s. The FBI found evidence that a teacher at had sexually abused as many as 142 boys from 1979 until his arrest and conviction. The results of these devastating childhood sexual abuse experiences continue to ricochet through Native communities decades later.
Students at the White Earth Indian boarding school, circa 1924. These Indian children were forbidden from wearing traditional dress or hair, and from speaking their native language. Photo courtesy Becker County Historic Society
Lakota Elder’s granddaughter speaks to Nerburn: “You see this photo here-it’s my grandfather. You see what he’s wearing? A little wool suit made out of U.S. Army uniforms. You know why he’s wearing it? Because he was kidnapped from his parents and taken to a boarding school where they cut off his hair and burned the leather leggings and moccasins that his mother had lovingly made for him with her own hands.”
A Dakota woman confirms: “My grandmother told me she tried to keep up the old Indian ways...prayed with her father’s pipe. They prayed to God on top of the hill, on top of the highest rocks they prayed. They tried to keep up with their ceremonies, but then they were told to forget all that. White people said our religion was pagan and we were savages.... My parents’ generation was forced to embrace Christianity; I was brought up as a Christian. Still, I always had my pipe. Now, when you go to the Dakotas, you should see the churches standing empty. Weeds are growing over them. The people are all turning back to the Way of the Sacred Pipe.”
Click on the rug to return to the top of the page.