Indian Boarding Schools in Context

Steven Newcomb

Some years ago, I came across the book Massacre: A Survey of Today’s American Indian published in 1931. Written by Robert Gessner, the book is an exposé. It provides what one Indian writer recently called “contextual and perspective research” of Indian boarding schools that helps us get “a total picture.”

In chapter ten, “Flogging Children,” Gessner explains “in the thousands of miles I have traveled I have heard one great plea: We are starving—yes, we are being robbed and oppressed—yes, but first save our children.” Gessner’s research “confirmed these verbal statements.” “I learned,” he wrote, “of children as young as six years of age being taken forcibly from their mothers’ arms and sent to distant boarding schools until they were eighteen years old, without seeing their parents during that period.” Gessner learned how Indian children in those schools “were underfed to point of starvation, roughly treated, even beaten, and all the time made to work half a day at hard industrial labor in their fields, in the bakery, or in the laundry—child labor.”

Gessner said he had seen the jails Indian children were “thrown into after being flogged for infringement of minor rules.” He detailed eye-witness accounts: Indian boys chained to beds at night; thrown in cellars under the building, which the superintendent called a jail; shoes taken away and children made to walk through the snow to help milk the cows; children whipped with a hemp rope, and a water hose; children forced to do work for employees and superintendents without compensation under the guise of industrial employment and education. The source? “Hearings Before a Subcommittee on Indian Affairs pursuant to S. Res. 341, p. 30.”

One boarding school superintendent showed an investigator “a dungeon in his basement used for girls, up to his coming [to the school] two years ago.” The dungeon “was 18’ x 8’, absolutely dark. Girls told the superintendent of two or three of them sleeping there on mattresses and rats crawling over them at night. Their food was bread and water. Brick walls showed where the girls had worked holes through and escaped.”

Mrs. Gertrude Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa, was founder and President of the National Council of American Indians, which preceded the National Congress of American Indians. She related a story of Conquering Bear’s two boys in the Oglala Lakota boarding school. The boys were captured after running away, and given a “severe beating. They were about twelve and fourteen at the time. Their heads were shaven, though it was winter.” The boys ended up in a school jail. “They were in a dirty, filthy place, with a bucket to be used as a toilet.”

“One of the boys had a ball and chain locked onto his leg and was locked to the bed at night.” Zitkala-Sa said that “It hurt her to see the little boy carrying the ball when marching to meals…The boy even went to school with the ball and chain on, and it bothered the other children.”

At Pine Ridge, a man named Philip Romero personally told Gessner: “They whipped Mary Rough, a young girl, and when her granddad went to see her the guard asked, ‘What the hell are you going to do about it? We’ve got a right to give her a whipping.”

An engineer at the Rice School on the San Carlos Reservation gave testimony under oath. He testified “about Indian girls, 11 and 12 years old, who escaped from the Rice School.” They were “pursued and captured.” “Part of their punishment,” wrote Gessner, “consisted in walking with heavy cordwood on their shoulders, around and around the school yard the whole of an afternoon. One girl stood dumb [silent], her head and shoulders bowed, offering passive resistance. The principal ‘seized a club from the ground, beat the girl until she fell, and beat her on the ground. Then the girl carried the cordwood for the afternoon.”

Applying a strap to the bare backs of Indian children in the boarding schools was originally termed “a flogging,” but this terminology was then changed to the euphemism “emergency measure.” The “disciplinarians” were, according to Gessner, “guilty of the atrocities listed in this chapter.” One white administrator “received protection from the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs for having ‘children beaten with leather straps, knocked down for sarcasm to the disciplinarian, struck with fist and hard object until covered from face to knees with blood’.”

While not every Indian child experienced such abuse, it is unconscionable for anyone to downplay generations of criminal and traumatic patterns of abuse that Indian children experienced in the boarding “schools.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

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gamma's picture
Sierra, for useful surveys of issues surrounding genocide and indigenous peoples today, see (1) Robert T. Hitchcock and Tara M. Twedt, ‘Physical and cultural genocide of various indigenous peoples’, in Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons and Israel W. Charny (eds), Genocide in the Twentieth Century (New York and London: Garland Press 1995), 483–514 (2) Katherine Bischoping and Natalie Fingerhut,‘Border lines: indigenous peoples in genocide studies’, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 33, no. 4, 1996, 481–506 (3) John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings 1975). Some Indian person needs to process these three works because they survey the entire domain of indigenous genocide.
sierra's picture
Thank you much for those resources, gamma. I will certainly look into those for an expanded understanding and maybe more. So sorry to hear about your CD, too. I would've been ENRAGED. But speaking of the ignorance factor, that person's behaviour epitomizes that common Euro attitude of arrogance that disparages N.A. history with the vintage "Get over it" phrase & proceed to blame the stolen continents' original inhabitants for the white man's disease. Only it's been called "the stick of white guilt." Try the tree stump's rings, stupids.
gamma's picture
Tell this to modern-day Custers like Charles Trimble!
notnek's picture
Grandfather would never talk about it, but the scars showed. He did his best to avoid church and though we were mixed he wanted us to deny our heritage. This sadness needs to be told over and over until this nation understands and recognizes it's terrible past.
zelbe1's picture
The first thing that comes to my mind in reading this article is the "redefining" of terminology Americans have in referring to atrocities or committing criminal acts throughout history. As recent as the Iraq War, in order to get away with torturing alleged terrorist, they renamed them "enemy combatants". What the heck is going on here? When Jesus was "flogged" in "Passion of the Christ", it was so graphic, bloody and took nearly twenty minutes of the film in order for Christians to get an emotional rise out of that sequence, for me, I thought it too long and disturbing even for a Christian myself. This side of American history should be shown and shared in classrooms, but I have a theory that the only acceptable atrocity throughout the America's that will ever be shared is the Jewish conentration camps and although it was a foreign atrocity done in Europe and not America, seems Americans have fully adopted this tragic event as real if only to downplay and forget, what was done here on this continent. I would go even further to say that the Nazis learned from the Americans on how to deal with the Jews in this countrys genocide of the Indians, no matter who I offend.
sonnyskyhawk's picture
The unconscionable atrocities and punishments committed by some religious sects in America, involving our native children, at what were termed "Boarding Schools", will some day have to be addressed in a court of law. The Canadian government has to some extent been held accountable, in that they have admitted responsibility and settled with a large sum of money as compensation for their involvement. The United States of America has yet to be held accountable, along with the religious sects responsible. The Catholic Church has been embroiled in settlements with some of the children ( now adults ),in regards to pedofilia, but the actual subject of abuse at "Boarding Schools" run by these sects has not reached the pinnacle of attention it deserves. The " tip of the iceberg " as they say, have been recent attempts to expose the tragedy by some legal representatives of survivors that are still alive today, but the issue has yet to truly materialize in the consciousness of America. The responsible parties feel the presence of the " elephant " in the room, but hope is that the passage of time and the anti-indian attitude of the U.S.Supreme Court will be on their side. Those that would try to convince others that these atrocities did not happen, or dilute the extent of harm done to our children and the generations that followed, sadly, include some of our own Indian people. There may be statutes of limitations, the passage of time and the passing of victims, but the memories of our people are intact and history will document our experience.
sierra's picture
I recently read a CBC article about Jack Layton's disapproval of Joseph Lawrence's use of the term "holocaust" for the indigenous peoples forced residential "school" nightmares. In that article, Mr. Lawrence didn't get a word in, except where Mr. Layton was glad Joseph apparently apologized for using that term. Then why weren't Joseph's words themselves relayed? How little do these white aficionados know about such a national disgrace which compelled the Cdn PM to give an apology on June 11, 2008? As you pointed out Mr. Newcomb, about the terminology used, this is perhaps the core issue among the differing academic discourses. Ultimately, the dominant ones maintain the status quo by basically recycling and resizing appropriated terms and phrases that compete to describe aspects like the human condition and related epistemology. Thus, we heard Harper's apology that included the use of the term "abuses" when these were outright atrocities committed against indigenous children. Mr. Layton relayed his understanding how "there's no question that the residential school experience was devastating to many Aboriginal Canadians." And a nanosecond later, he stated that Joseph's emotions overtook him. One can see how little that tidbit affected Mr. Layton. They weren't "schools" Mr. Layton. The scooping up of North America's indigenous children for these murderous free-for-all colonial & centennial enduring facilities are what allowed the land grab for the British to occur with ease. And the British knew for centuries how effective the printing press was, and with today's individual media titans such as Israel Asper, (former) Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner among them, it becomes easier to understand how the condition of the oppressed is maintained through that interplay of the mainstream media and educational institutions so that the dominant society maintains that hierarchal pedestal by defining the situation, framing the issues, selecting the terminologies and establishing the doctrines. In her piece, "Dare to Compare," Lilian Friedman points out how previous comparisons of the Jewish Holocaust and the Native American one, was met by vehement opposition by Jewish academics. In her words, it was as if the Jewish Holocaust happened on American soil. Interesting about the situation of the Jews, is that their experience of anti-semitism throughout history is well known. Yet today they flourish in positions of power and influence, a mere decades from their Holocaust, while Native Americans are STILL oppressed since the less than 1% of the population are the ruling elite and who are now the landowners.
gamma's picture
I had a collection of over three hundred videos describing abuse to Indians at boarding schools. Then one day when I was attending class, my roommate's friend got angry, said we Indians need to forget about how his ancestors mistreated us and broke my CD into two.