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American Indian Residential Boarding Schools: The Truth and the Trauma
For many years, Native families remained skeptical about the whereabouts of their children. Sadly, we now know the harsh truth. Residential boarding schools and the historical trauma caused by the brutal acts of genocidal tyrants resurface, and family members of missing loved ones struggle to face this nightmare. Starting in 1860, Native American children were forced by the United States government into residential boarding schools to “kill the Indian and save the man.” After drastic and failed attempts to destroy and eliminate the Native race, the government concluded that they would assimilate the race and “civilize” the “savage Indians.”
Forced assimilation, meaning conforming to white society norms, was the United States' and Canada's goal. Young children were ushered into schools with much resistance from their families, often with empty promises made to the children’s parents of visitations and summers at home. Society wanted to take care of the country’s “Indian problem” and strip the Natives of their culture, language, and practices.
Many accounts from boarding school survivors detailed humiliating acts being performed on these young children upon their arrival at their new schools. Native children’s long, sacred hair was immediately cut off, traditional clothing, beautiful beadwork, photographs of their family, medicine pouches, and personal items were often burned or destroyed, never to be returned. Native children were called “dirty Indians” and doused in alcohol, kerosene, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), and other known pesticides to “disinfect” them. Young Native children now clothed in matching, uncomfortable uniforms made of poor quality to teach them about “sameness, regularity, and order.” School staff assigned each child a new English first and last name and beat the children brutally for speaking Anishinaabemowin -stating the language was the devil’s language.
The reports of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are horrid, and the nightmares are endless. The trauma that affected our ancestors continues to influence generations today. In May of 2021, the gruesome discovery of 215 Native children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, opened a floodgate of emotions and has sparked a nationwide investigation to bring our children -our ancestors- our family members’ home. This discovery only reminds us that this traumatic period in our history existed.
Since the discovery, many changes have occurred. In May 2022, “Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released Volume 1 of the investigative report called for as part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive effort to address the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies. This report lays the groundwork for the continued work of the Interior Department to address the intergenerational trauma created by historical federal Indian boarding school policies.” (https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases). “The investigation found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven in Hawaii. The investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 schools nationwide. As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase.”
In September of 2021, a bill was introduced to the Senate to establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States and set forth its powers, duties, and membership. The bill also intends to modify the curriculum for 8-12th grades to incorporate teachings about Native boarding schools. It is time to rewrite our history books and educate the truth to current and future generations about Native American Boarding Schools. It is time to reveal the cruel ways children were treated by nuns, priests, and other authority figures.
Children lost their lives at boarding schools. Deaths became secrets, parents were told lies, and our children suffered while missing the people they loved most-their families. It is time to educate future generations and teach the truth about our past.
The Advocacy Resource Center advocates are available for support at 906-632-1808.
The Culture and Language Department is also available for assistance and can be reached at 906-635-6050.
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Harbor Springs Holy Childhood of Jesus was opened in 1829. It was, however, closed from 1839 until 1884, when it reopened. The boarding school officially closed in 1983 but continued as a day school, daycare center, and thrift shop. It was demolished in November of 2007.
Click the link above to view the report.
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