Cultural Genocide Veiled as Education—The Time for Healing Is Now
The U.S. Boarding School Policy
The goal of “civilization” of Native people was to transform them into “Americans” by assimilating them into mainstream American culture. Reforming adults who were fully acculturated into Native ways and spiritual beliefs and practices was seen as too daunting. Transforming the children was a more promising goal.
The goal of transforming Native young people through assimilation is apparent in the earliest history of the colonies. The roots of attempted assimilation through education lie deep in the history of the Virginia Colony, sanctioned by the Anglican Church as early as 1619. William and Mary College was founded in 1693 as an Anglican school to serve the young men of the colonists and Native Americans. Dartmouth College’s earliest roots are in its Puritan founder’s desires to establish a school for local Native men.
The federal Indian boarding school policy has been a collaboration of the Christian churches and the federal government since its earliest inception, beginning with the Indian Civilization Fund Act of March 3, 1819. Thomas Lorraine McKenney, a Quaker, served as the first Superintendent of Indian Trade starting in 1816 and was one of the key figures in the development of American Indian policy. It was McKenney who advocated for the federal policy of education and civilization through a network of schools to be run by the missionary societies under the supervision of the Superintendent of Indian Trade. He likely was the architect of the Civilization Act to “encourage activities of benevolent societies in providing schools for the Indians ... and authorized an annual ‘civilization fund’ to stimulate and promote this work.”
The thrust of “civilization” of Native Americans was to strip them of their traditions and customs and teach them the ways of the majority culture in missionary schools, i.e., transform the children into Christian farmers or laborers. The churches were funded by the federal government to accomplish this cultural genocide. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was created in 1824 within the Department of War primarily to administer the funds to the churches from the Civilization Fund. In 1824, the Indian Civilization Fund subsidized 32 schools that enrolled more than 900 Indian children. By 1830, the Indian Civilization Fund supported 52 schools with 1,512 enrolled students. Funds from Indian treaties augmented the program, frequently without consultation with or consent of the tribe signatory to the treaty.
During the 60 years between 1819 and 1879 most of the Church-run schools were on or near the reservations or homelands of the Native American children. The children would return home either daily or on weekends to be with their families and communities. But the experience was that this resulted in children adhering to their cultural practices and beliefs. In order to eradicate these practices and beliefs it would become the policy to isolate the children from their influence. In 1886 John B. Riley, Indian School Superintendent summed it up:
“If it be admitted that education affords the true solution to the Indian problem, then it must be admitted that the boarding school is the very key to the situation. However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home—if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.”
Mere education was not enough. Separating children from their family, their tribe, their culture, and their homes on the reservation was seen as necessary to the larger goal of assimilating them into the majority culture.
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