Points of view: Account with the history of the Indian residential schools



By K. Tsianina Lomawaima / Special At the Washington Post

After the recent discovery of mass graves and mass graves at residential schools in Canada and the United States, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland ordered an investigation into the residential schools. For generations, these schools have taken children out of homes and asked them to deny their families, cultures and languages. Indeed, residential schools targeted individuals as part of the American quest to deny Indigenous sovereignty and seize Indigenous lands.

This horrific damage demands a calculation that goes beyond the trope of pity that has characterized the response to this story for too long and finally promotes respect for the sovereignty of Indigenous nations that has been denied for centuries.

The origin of residential schools: In 1819, the Congressional Act for Civilization allocated $ 10,000 per year for churches to convert and allegedly civilize American Indians as part of a larger project to destroy Indigenous nations as independent political entities and to justify American claims to their lands. Lawmakers based their policies on myths that divine providence ordered conquest and that native people would disappear naturally in the face of what white Americans saw as civilized “progress.” Mission schools aimed to erase and replace everything Indigenous – language, religion, family structure, economics, law, governance – with English and American standards. But these early schools enrolled only a few thousand students, and indigenous resistance thwarted rapid conversion, deculturation, and loss of land.

Undeterred in its mission, in 1824 the US government founded the Federal Indian Bureau which designed Indian schools specifically to erase Indianness, grease the cogs of land dispossession, and produce bonded laborers. In the 1850s, increased demand for land led to a federal system of Indian day schools and boarding schools designed to dispossess Indigenous peoples more quickly.

The heyday of federal schools stretched from the 1880s to the 1930s. During this time, students experienced a minimum half day of study coupled with the half day of manual labor necessary to maintain underfunded schools. The staff used harsh punishment, military discipline, and the drudgery of labor to attack individuality and tribal identity. During the summer months, schools outsourced boys’ labor to farms and ranches while girls looked after white households. Distance and isolation severed family ties.

My family history: My father’s stories, family photos and archival documents document how these schools and policies fractured our family. On September 20, 1927, a car stopped at the Wichita Children’s Home. Probation officer AE Jones picked up Curtis Thorpe Carr, 9, and his brother, Robert Carlisle Carr, 10, to drive them 75 miles south of the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma. My grandmother, Cora Wynema Carr, a single mom from Mvskoke (Creek), struggled to find work and couldn’t support her children. Bob was expelled in 1928 while Curt remained in Chilocco until 1935. During those eight years Curt endured the most difficult school conditions and witnessed some meager reforms.

In the 1930s, progressive-era reformers and bureaucrats in the Roosevelt administration introduced some changes to schools to address concerns about cruel treatment. For example, the disciplinarians have been renamed advisers; boys and girls were allowed to sit together in the dining room; Mandates for English only and church attendance have been relaxed; civics courses mentioned treaties. In the late 1930s, bilingual readers were developed to speed up the transition of some communities to English. In 1950, however, aggressive deculturation programs reappeared along with Cold War xenophobia and intolerance for cultural difference. Bilingual readers were replaced with English-only scripts emphasizing hygiene and good working habits of Indians as food servers and gas station attendants.

Federal Indian schools began to close after World War II as policymakers struggled to dissolve Indigenous sovereignty and transfer legal jurisdiction, education, and social services to the states. Indigenous students are increasingly enrolling in sometimes hostile public schools whose courses rarely mention Indigenous history or culture.

Native resistance: Federal Indian schools have not completely disappeared, however. In fact, they have become a means for Indigenous activists, parents and tribal leaders to fight back and demand the federal government’s fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations as well as local control over land, land and trust. resources and schools. Native resistance to abusive federal control prompted laws such as the Indian Education Act of 1972 and the Indian Self-Determination and Aid to Education Act of 1975, which enabled the local community to control schools.

In 2021, the Bureau of Indian Education is funding 56 schools run by the bureau and 131 tribal-controlled schools, mostly day schools incorporating indigenous languages ​​and culturally-based curricula. A handful of boarding schools (such as Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif., And Chemawa Indian High School in Salem, Oregon) remain an option for students who choose to enroll. They are a reminder of Indigenous resilience and the fact that these schools have not completely succeeded in destroying all Indigenous societies and individuals.

Nonetheless, the residential schools caused extensive and serious damage. Some students have been victims of illnesses, accidents, abuse, malnutrition; they never returned home. Among the students who survived, experiences and memories are mixed. The diversity of experiences teaches us the power of Indigenous resilience. But one reality unites all the former students of the boarding school: they grew up in an institution, not at home. It’s shaped everyone, in one way or another.

Lasting scars: The institutionalization of childhood certainly marked the lives of Curt and Bob. Curt ran away from Chilocco in 1935. For decades he harbored anger, feeling his mother had abandoned them. Curt survived Chilocco, the Depression Wanderer Route, and WWII to marry our mother, Marilyn, and raise two daughters. Bob was expelled from Chilocco in 1928 for “incorrigibility”; small thefts, mainly of food. The boys and girls of Chilocco were always hungry. Bob leapt in and out of reformatories until 1937, when he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in the Kansas State Penitentiary. He had stolen $ 30 worth of groceries from an institution, the Wichita Children’s Home, where his mother sporadically worked in the laundry. Bob died in 1938. Individual stories like those of Bob and Curt document the real consequences of the violent policies that benefited the United States as it claimed 2 billion acres of land.

Public policies, practices and attitudes continue to fuel Indigenous poverty, ill health and trauma today. Haaland’s initiative can be a crucial step forward. As we count, name and honor residential school students, justice demands that the United States accept responsibility for the violence against Indigenous peoples yesterday and today. The Home Office, Congress and the Supreme Court; federal policy makers and school staff; church leaders; pastoralists, farmers and housewives who have benefited from the student workforce; all Americans who live on their native land: All are accomplices.

Haaland’s initiative can be achieved through cooperation between Indigenous nations, federal agencies, school survivors and descendants, and researchers. To fully reflect the legacy of Indian residential schools, public respect for Indigenous nations based on sovereign-to-sovereign relationships is necessary. But a key obstacle in the process will be the stories that only portray Indians as helpless victims. These stories deny Indigenous resilience and relegate trauma to history. In these accounts, all that remains visible are the targets of the violence, not the perpetrators.

Responsibility – not pity – must guide the United States in its accounts with the legacy of residential schools. Nothing less than this will be a continuing degradation of stolen Indigenous children, survivors, Indigenous nations struggling to determine their future, and the democratic ideal that the United States has long aspired to.

K. Tsianina Lomawaima is a retired professor of Native American studies and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academy of Education.


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