Boarding school students in Minnesota

When Will U.S. Apologize for Boarding School Genocide?

Mary Annette Pember

The cultural genocide perpetrated by Canada’s Indian residential school system was heavily influenced by the United States.

When the Canadian government first sought solutions to the country’s “Indian problem,” back in the 19th century, it turned to the cruel yet expedient example set by its neighbor to the south. A Member of Parliament, Nicholas Flood Davin, suggested that Canadians model their efforts after those established by U.S. Army Lt. Richard Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879. Pratt coined the infamous phrase, “Kill the Indian to Save the Man” as a motto for the systematic destruction of Native culture, language and family as an alternative to warring against tribal nations.

The U.S. model, however, does not figure highly in Canada’s recent reconciliation efforts. On June 11, Canada marked the eighth anniversary of its formal apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples for the travesty that was Canada’s boarding schools. The apology, financial compensation, a framework for healing and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were all components of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007. (In the largest class-action suit in Canadian history, former students of Indian residential schools settled out of court with the federal government and four national Christian churches.) The commission’s mandate since then has been to gather written and oral history of residential schools and survivors and work toward reconciliation between survivors and Canada. The TRC concluded its work in June.

RELATED: 'Cultural Genocide,' Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

In the Canadian Agreement, survivors specified that part of their settlement go toward funding programs aimed at healing and helping survivors and their families recover from the trauma inflicted upon them by the residential schools. Medical research in Canada (First Nations Information Governance Center) and the United States (American Psychiatric Association) link the boarding school traumas of abuse, neglect and separation from family and culture with high rates of suicide, substance and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and violence, and other health disparities such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Canadian health professionals note that reducing these disparities requires more than narrow concerns directly related to drug and alcohol abuse; it requires understanding and addressing the historical and cultural impact of trauma on aboriginal peoples.

RELATED: Trauma May Be Woven Into DNA of Native Americans

Despite similar disparities in health for Native peoples in the U.S., the government has never formally addressed its role in the forced assimilation of generations of Native children at government and church run boarding schools. Although President Obama signed an Apology to Native Peoples of the United States on December 19, 2009 into law as part of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010, the law has received scant media coverage, and Obama signed the bill in private without ceremony or announcement.

Death to Health

Many more Native children were harmed in the U.S. than in Canada by boarding schools. According to the TRC, there were more than 130 Indian residential schools in Canada, and upwards of 150,000 aboriginal children passed through this system. In the U.S., the Boarding School Healing Coalition estimates that there were over 500 such schools. According to Denise Lajimodiere, Ph.D at North Dakota State University School of Education and president of the Boarding School Healing Coalition, there were 153 federal Indian boarding schools and many more religious schools run by Christian denominations through contracts with the U.S.

According to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) 2013 Legal Review, there were still 60,000 Native children enrolled in boarding schools in 1973, when the boarding school era was coming to a close.

“We need more researchers to verify data here in the U.S. Canada is so far ahead of us,” says Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. She points out that this data is crucial because unresolved trauma from boarding schools has contributed to maladaptive behaviors and social patterns such as suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse.


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