Cultural Genocide Veiled as Education—The Time for Healing Is Now
The systematic destruction of indigenous cultures and communities through the removal and reprogramming of Native children
Boarding schools located far from homelands were initiated when 2nd Lieutenant Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The fundamental principle was that Native Americans must be taught to reject tribal culture and adapt to white society; famously saying his goal was to “kill the Indian, in order to save the man.” This initiative called for the removal of children from family and community, voluntarily when possible, by coercion if necessary. Parents were threatened with the loss of provisions—which almost certainly meant starvation—or even jail for withholding children.
Nineteen Hopi men were designated as “hostiles” by the U.S. Army on November 25, 1894 and incarcerated in Alcatraz “until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.” They had opposed the forced removal and education of their children.
Children were held in isolation in regimented and sterile settings. Separated from their homes and communities, they were placed in dormitory settings fashioned after the military model where they were controlled, trained, neglected and abused. They were punished for speaking their native languages, banned from acting in any way representative of traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and all things and behaviors reflective of their cultures. They were intentionally and systematically inculcated with shame for being Indian through ridicule of their religions and their life-ways; shame that became internalized as self-loathing and emotional disenfranchisement for their own cultures.
For many of the girls and boys, the only touch they received from the small population of adults stationed at the schools, were the beatings or, perhaps worse, forced sexual contact with adults, or older students who themselves had been victims. Kept at the boarding school year-round, many grew up solely in the company of other children, under the control of a few adults, who shared the perception that their wards were savages and heathens to be managed, tamed and “civilized.”
Systemic institutional neglect and the fear of death from persistent mortalities motivated many students to run away. At Carlisle Indian School in the years from 1883 through 1918 there were 1,842 desertions and nearly 500 deaths; ranging between 3.5 and 4.5 times the national average at that time. Capture after running away—the only desperate act within the power of the children and teens—was punished by physical restraints, beatings, and isolation in unlighted cellars and unlighted and unventilated outbuildings designed as jails.
Before long, there were some 500 boarding schools in 18 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. As late as 1973, there were still 60,000 American Indian children enrolled in off-reservation schools.
Reports include the disappearance of children born to boarding school students as the result of rape. Unaccounted for thousands of children died from disease, malnutrition, loneliness and abuse. Survivors reported that many of the dead were buried anonymously, some in mass graves, on the grounds of the residential schools. The remains of these children have never been returned to their families or communities.
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