Sexual Trauma: One Legacy of the Boarding School Era

Ruth Hopkins

Every American Indian alive today has been affected by the policy of assimilation implemented by the United States government not that long ago.

Under the guise of Manifest Destiny, European immigrants swept through North America in ever increasing waves, displacing Natives from their ancestral homelands. They made treaties with Native nations only to break them, and resorted to outright theft when push came to shove. Ultimately, these greed-driven conquests led to the massacre of millions of innocent Indigenous peoples. Their weapons of mass destruction were disease, starvation, and war.

They underestimated the strength and resilience of North America’s First Peoples. Despite their best efforts to terminate us, and even though Natives were vastly outnumbered, we persisted. The Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), joined by allies, defeated U.S. forces on North American soil at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Even though they killed nearly all the buffalo, Natives held on. We survived. In the late 1800s, a new idea arose as to how to deal with the “Indian problem.” Popular opinion, decided it was better to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In other words, they desired to strip us of our cultures and languages and make us over in their image. They wanted to “civilize” Natives, and they would use religious based education to do it.

Pre-1900, 25 boarding schools were built off-reservation and a minimum of 30,000 Native children, about 10% of the entire Native population at the time, were pushed through the system. These boarding schools were run by religious organizations, and funded by the Federal government. By the end of the boarding school era, over 100,000 Native children had passed through the boarding school system.

Many Native children were snatched from their mother’s arms and stolen away to attend boarding schools. Stella Pretty Sounding Flute was forced to go to boarding school, as were her brothers. She described the intense trauma children experienced when they were taken away from everything and everyone they know and placed in a strange, cold, impersonal environment cut off from nature. One of the first events upon arrival to the boarding school laid the groundwork for the years of psychological damage that would be inflicted on the children for years to come. Their hair would be cut. Traditionally, Native men wore long hair. Stella recalled seeing boys’ spirits broken as their braids, literal ties to their identity and holding spiritual power, fell to the floor.

Children were forbidden to speak their language, and beaten for doing so. The implementation of this English-only policy at boarding schools is the primary reason so many Native languages are on the brink of extinction now. My father, also a boarding school survivor, told stories of his willful older brother, who would not stop speaking the Dakota language despite the abuse he received for refusing to give it up. Years later, that same brother went on to teach Dakota language to children at a Tribal high school.

Life at boarding school was punishing of its own accord. Children were not allowed to return home to visit their families for years at a time. Conditions were harsh. During particularly cold winters, some children froze to death in their beds. Days were long, and usually consisted of difficult, and occasionally dangerous, industrial work.

Despite all of those horrors, none of them compares to the shocking level of inhumane physical brutality, sexual abuse and child rape that took place at boarding schools. Child molestation was rampant.

Brave elders have come forward to share their heart wrenching tales of abuse and assault at the hands of priests, nuns, and other staff at boarding schools. As a parent, it’s difficult to listen to stories of how innocent preschool age girls were digitally penetrated by perverted priests and little boys were forced to perform oral sex on nuns in the middle of the night under pain of death. Sexual abuse was frequent and continuous, utter torture. Most of us will never know the trauma our grandmothers and grandfathers were made to endure at boarding schools.

There are thousands of Native children in both the United States and Canada who never returned home from boarding and residential schools; their small, bruised, and broken bodies yet unaccounted for. There are reports of children who were murdered while still newborns, that their families never knew existed. These babies, who died without names, were the product of rape. The souls of these murdered children cry out for justice.

Coupled with justice, we also need healing. Sexual abuse is a disease. Even today, when Native survivors of sexual trauma come forward, the abuse can nearly always be traced back through a line of victims who became perpetrators, with the first act of sexual violence originating at a boarding school.

Boarding school has also affected Native communities’ natural healing process, because it robbed us of our close familial bonds, and our cultural belief systems, as well as ceremonies meant to doctor us and assist in our trajectory through life.

Shame is a wall that hides sexual trauma. It prevents sexual abuse survivors from seeking help. We cannot afford to be quiet any longer. If you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse or rape, you are not alone. You can find healing, and you can reach out and help others like yourself.

Despite the devastation the Federal government’s policy of assimilation and the boarding school system has caused, all is not lost. We still have our languages and our belief systems. Combined with new counseling techniques, we can heal ourselves and our communities.

The 3rd Annual HOPE Conference will be held at The Billings Hotel & Convention Center in Billings, Montana April 4th & 5th, 2013. The HOPE Conference coincides with the 45th Annual MSU-Billings Powwow at the Alterowitz Gym on Friday April 5th and Saturday April 6th. The purpose of the conference is to address the issue of child sexual trauma within Native communities, and to bring to light this epidemic which has torn at the fabric of Indian Country communities for generations. The Conference will focus on the PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE of this issue, highlighting healing and resilience. Click here to find out more.






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dinagw's picture
I grew up in a native family where there was no such things as beautiful beaded moccasins or other traditional items passed down. All the photos from the reservation show people dressed in modern "white man's" clothing. All I knew about being Indian was the alcoholism I saw from the time I was very little. I also never heard anything about boarding schools, not until I was well into adulthood. I went back to the rez to reestablish family connections and to try to understand what happened to my family, to find my own healing. That's when my 75 year old great uncle told me all about him and his siblings being sent away to the Chemawa boarding school when they were little, and the things he described to me were beyond belief...the torture, the abuse, all the things we know about now. It was the early 90's, still before the elders were talking as openly about it as they are now. I was shocked. It was hard to believe, but he had no reason to lie and ever since then I've heard countless stories that echo his. The knowledge of what happened to him and his brothers and my grandmother made everything make sense in terms of how our family became so dysfunctional. I am sure there was sexual abuse because it explains some of the horrible things that happened in the family. The one thing he said that I never forgot was this: "don't blame your mother for not loving you the way she should have. She was not taught love. None of us were taught how to love." It also made sense why they grew up and became so assimilated. It was about survival. Survival is not necessarily about being fit (as Darwinists are so fond of saying), but about being adaptable. It was a psychological war that was inflicted on our ancestors in the boarding schools, and the multigenerational PTSD that resulted is what we are still healing from. It, too, is a generational issue, and we do the work by truth-telling. Thank you for your good work Ruth.
Two Bears Growling's picture
This is one of the reasons I despise formal Christian religions. In the name of the Crown & the Church, untold millions were murdered, untold hundreds of billions in valuables were stolen & swindled from native peoples across North & South America & in between; trillions were stolen by these land thieves. Even today we see the pain of this abuse of our people who were placed in these hell holes. Some of them have done the same to generations that came after them. The cycle is repeated year after year. I have seen interviews from some old ones of our peoples & they cry as they tell of the abuses they suffered at the hands of these beasts. It breaks my heart seeing & hearing those interviews. For all the abuses STILL the Roman Catholic hasn't paid enough! Hiding this evil sin for untold centuries & just shuffling those evil ones from place to place to harm more! SHAME & DISGRACEFUL is what this ALL is!They will not have paid enough until they sell all they have, shut down & the guilty ones pay the ultimate price. THEN, I might say they have paid enough. I just can't imagine how these ones feel being forced to do what some of them were. I can't imagine all the physical pain some of our ancestors experienced from the beatings for speaking our languages & practicing our worship of the Creator while at these houses of horrors & torture. My the Great Spirit bring His peace & comfort to ALL who went through these awful things. May Man Above bring joy once more to their lives & the generations to come.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
And still another excuse for continued dysfunction. I guess "the government stole my land" isn't working anymore so new excuses must be formulated. These things happened long ago and while not forgotten, should not be the basis for the ongoing BS of blaming someone/something else for being alcoholic, etc. I have incidents in my memory as well but have never "used" them to justify or validate any of my own dysfunctions. I am what I am because of me, not because some pervert did what they did many, many years ago.
Two Bears Growling's picture
dinagw, I can relate to what you say about what your relative had to say. My mother grew up in such a household: Alcoholism. She said she cannot remember anything ealier than when she was 12. I asked her why & she doesn't know. She did say her oldest brother told her it's probably for the best that she doesn't remember anything since there was always fighting & drinking. STILL, our people are paying to this day for all some of our ancestors went through at these "schools". Generation after generation. So much pain from the past still haunts our people. Assimilation attempts caused more damage to our people than can ever be imagined. When one's identity & belief system is destroyed it kills the soul of who we are & have been. Those who cause such a loss are evil to the core. To heal from such a travesty we have to go back to the ways of our ancestors BEFORE our people were harmed by the Invaders of centuries ago.THIS is when the damage began. I didn't learn about who my people were until later in life. It was then I began to understand why I felt like something had been missing in my life. My family dressed as the washichu around them, went to their religious gatherings & associated with them. It wasn't until my grandparents on both sides of the family began telling our history that I found out who we were & why we had been denied our heritage. It was out of fear. To be a "half-breed" as they were called by the whites, in their times growing up was to be treated far worse than being of African decent. If it was found out you had any Indian blood in you it could mean in those times you could have your home burnt down or even be killed if you went into the wrong places at the wrong times. I was angry for some time when I found out we had been denied who we truly were, but as I became older & thought more about those things I discovered it was for survival. I came to a place of peace inside at that time. Since that time I have taught my own children to be proud of their heritage, regardless of who your people are. Our Creator loves us all because we are all one people. It has been a long journey in discovering I could not fully heal inside until I knew who I was & where my people came from. There is healing in knowing who you are. There is peace at last when you know who your people are. The puzzle is then complete & we can be proud of who we truly are. No more shame, being embarrassed or being confused about who you are. You are then complete. The Great Spirit only wants for us to be happy & live in agood way. Sharing goodness & being kind to all we meet each day. Spreading the joy we have in this short time we travel in this Life. Take care my friend.........
Two Bears Growling
Two Bears Growling's picture
Annon, What folks are saying are not excuses to why they do what they do. They are historical facts. Study psychology for a few decades & you will start to understand what is going on with folks. It's shameful of you to speak as you do. It shows you do not understand the enormity of the problems facing native people who come from these backgrounds. It is a cycle that continues to this day even though the initial events happened in the late 19th century & continued until these insitiutions were shut down. For a people to heal, they must return to their roots & see the truth as it is versus the lies that were told. Admit there is STILL a problem & resolve it. Those who are guilty of perpetuating these evils among our people have to be exposed regardless of who they or their families may be. A spirit & heart that finally heals is a person who has at last regained their power & are at last free of the shame that never was theirs, but was their abuser's the whole time. Love, compassion & understanding heals a multitude of sufferings my friends & once more allows us burst forth with joy in our lives. It sets us free to truly love again & be the person the Creator meant for us to be: A person whose life reflects the Great Spirit's love for us all. If each one can heal one, we can change our community one life at a time.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
This topic is of utmost importance. I pray that every survivor receives help and liberation from the suffering caused by this horrible program. As the daughter of a Jewish immigrant who escaped the Nazis, I understand the brutality of governments. It has taken me many years to disassociate myself with the "white" race, although I look European. I would like to suggest that not ALL white people are perpetrators. The situation has much more to do with power-mongering. I respect indigenous Native Americans who lived peacefully in tribes and had strong and fascinating cultures.
Anonymous's picture
Thank You for this article...you are savings lives cause hurt people hurt people and we can heal...