Cultural Genocide Veiled as Education—The Time for Healing Is Now
Like a lot of the details of United States historical relations with the indigenous inhabitants of this land, the story of Indian boarding school policy of the United States government has largely been written out of the history books. Yet, this was a major federal policy. And it had major impacts, positive and negative, on indigenous individuals, families, and communities. These impacts are still felt to this day. In retrospect, the policy was based on flawed thinking—despite the fact that it was clothed in at least the appearance of good intention. The flawed basis of the policy was that the all-out elimination of what is uniquely “Native,” and full-scale assimilation into the dominant society of the United States, was required in order to ensure the survival of individuals of Native descent. The policy was, at its core, a policy of cultural genocide.
The negative impacts of the cultural genocide persist today. United States Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, Pawnee, observed in 2000, when reflecting on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ involvement in the policy:
“The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy as Indian families suffer the ruin of lives by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another.”
Once it is admitted that the policy was flawed and harmful, steps can begin to be taken to allow for healing. In fact, there are many models and examples of how healing can be accomplished when one culture or society harms another.
Universally, those models of healing, of reconciliation, require recognition of what happened and who was responsible as a first step. In this case, the United States and major Christian church denominations are implicated as most responsible. Beyond that, however, the details remain to be sorted out, as will be explained.
Beginning to create the circumstances in which healing can occur will require the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), along with many others working in the area, to turn back institutionalized ignorance of what happened, to dismantle legal blockades constructed long ago and being constructed anew to protect individuals and institutions from legal and financial responsibility, and to simply begin to uncover the truth of what has happened. NARF is proud and excited to have recently upped its efforts in this area—creating a groundbreaking effort to create the space for our Native nations to begin to heal from the boarding school policy. As an integral part of the healing process, this will also allow the United States and others involved in implementation of the policy over the decades the chance to heal from the damages they caused and that they suffer from as well.
Native American children were forcibly abducted from their homes and put into Christian and government run boarding schools beginning in the mid 1800s and continuing into the 1950s. This was done pursuant to a federal policy designed to “civilize” Indians and to stamp out Native cultures; a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide. Cut off from their families and culture, the children were punished for speaking their Native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing and identity of their Native cultures, taught that their cultures and traditions were evil and sinful, and that they should be ashamed of being Native American. Placed often far from home, they were frequently neglected or abused physically, sexually, and psychologically. Generations of these children became the legacy of the federal boarding school policy. They returned to their communities, not as the Christianized farmers that the boarding school policy envisioned, but as deeply scarred humans lacking the skills, community, parenting, extended family, language, and cultural practices of those raised in their cultural context.
There has been scant recognition by the U.S. federal government and church denominations that initiated and carried out this policy, and no acceptance of responsibility for the indisputable fact that its purpose was cultural genocide. There are no apparent realistic legal avenues to seek redress or healing from the deep and enduring wounds inflicted both on the individuals and communities of tribal nations. Lawsuits by individuals have been turned aside, and unlike other countries that implemented similar policies—e.g. Canada, New Zealand and Australia—there has been no official U.S. proposal for healing or reconciliation.
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