Native American Boarding Schools: Peace Amongst Cultures or Generational Trauma?

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Boarding schools throughout the Great Plains became implemented upon the belief that the forced assimilation of Native American children would yield promising results regarding the advancement of America and “Manifest Destiny.” The saying was “kill the Indian, and save the man,” meaning that the customs, beliefs, religion, and languages of Native American tribes were forcibly taken from children who were viewed as easier to mold and convert due to the naivety and adaptability of youth. The American population thought this as a smarter way of coexisting rather than extermination, the federal government attempted to “Americanize” these young Native Americans largely through education.

It was an army officer by the name of Richard H. Pratt that opened the first boarding school specifically for Native youth in 1879, his motto was, “kill the Indian, and save the man.”[i] It was within this school that fifty Native American children were forced to cut their long braids, required to speak English, and were forbidden to practice tribal traditions such as dress, language, dance, and religion and in turn, learn the customs, beliefs, and habits of white society. The penalty for disobeying these strict rules were severe in physical abuse at the hands of nuns, priests, and teachers of the boarding school. Congress and many Caucasian settlers shared the belief that coexisting could be reached through a shared ideology, even if it was forced.

Many Native American children who are now adults do not speak of their time at boarding schools due to the emotional trauma and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that many were victims of. While the American government saw boarding schools as a remedy to the “Indian Problem,” for the thousands of Native Americans who went to boarding schools, it’s remembered as a time of abuse and desecration of culture.[ii] Bill Wright, who is a Pattwin Native American was six years old when he was sent to boarding school. He remembers “matrons bathing him in kerosene and shaving his head…”[iii] and recalls a moment when he came home and “..my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said ‘Grandma, I don’t understand you,’ and she said ‘Then who are you?’”[iv] Instances such as this left a hole in Native American identity and culture so large that generational dysfunction has resulted to present day tribes. My mother speaks of her great-grandmother who was deaf, that hid my great-grandmother Freda under her skirts when the government came to take her away and once discovered, tried fighting them off with a butcher knife. Many elders of tribes knew the dangers their children would experience at the hands of the government and their objective to “erase and replace” Native American culture, a strategy to conquer Indians.[v] Because such harsh disciplinary action was implemented upon Native American youth, it in turn resulted in physical abuse and severe discipline on present-day generations that Wright admitted he long feared. “You grow up with discipline, but when you grow up and you have families, then what happens? If you’re my daughter and you leave your dress out, I’ll knock you through that wall. Why? Because I’m taught discipline,”[vi] Wright states. Dysfunction mirrors dysfunction, the reasoning behind boarding schools and targeting Native children was due to the naivety and ability to mold a young brain and the easier adaptability of youth is also the reasoning behind present day dysfunctions throughout Indian Country such as neglect, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, drug use of all ages, suicide which is heavily prevalent amongst my tribe (The Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribe)[vii], many infants born with drug dependency and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcoholism, and gambling addiction all run rampant amongst many tribes. While many do not understand the dysfunction surrounding reservations and the tragedies that many tribes are still feeling, the dysfunctions that many Native Americans of all ages fall victim to are due to the losses of culture, tradition, and most importantly, the loss of identity. It is a sense of who you are and what you stand for that aids an individual in pursuing dreams, interests, and also instills a sense of kinship and belonging amongst people who share similar beliefs, traditions, and identity. All ideas, dreams, and pursuits stem from who you are, but if you lack a sense of who you are, where do you go from there? Mary-Catherine Renville of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota has felt the inability to belong and find a family and states that the Tekakwitha boarding school and their faculty not only took their innocence and childhood but also “took away our sense of belonging to anyone, our opportunities to develop relationships…”[viii] and as a result many tribal members feel that they lack a sense of identity and as a result turn to harmful coping mechanisms that numb instead of heal.

The genocide and forced assimilation of a race of people has left generations feeling very angry and as a result, a feeling of hopelessness and a sense of being lost has also taken shape amongst Native American culture and identities; because many children of boarding schools were raped, abused, starved, and overall mistreated, upon returning home to reservations they were afraid to speak of their experiences and were ultimately left to deal with such horrors alone. Now many are speaking up about their experiences as a way to help future generations and stop the cycle of violence and dysfunction amongst all Native people. Howard Wanna, who is an enrolled member of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is finally speaking of the sexual abuse he was subjected to at the age of four or five; his abuse was at the hands of a priest. As a result, he felt alone and states “I had no one to turn to, not even God, because God’s representative on earth was the one hurting me.”[ix] Experiences such as Wanna’s are not uncommon and while many are now telling their stories that were long untold, there are many who still refuse to speak of their experiences in boarding schools. My grandmother, Mary Ellen Two Eagle Gourneau is one such individual; she refuses to speak of her time at boarding school and while she does still know how to speak her native Assiniboine language, she also refuses to and as a result, a piece of our culture and language will die with my grandmother.

The loss of culture and language is a reality and fear that all tribes face and because many of our elders still fear speaking their native language and many of them have long since forgotten the dialect of their first language, Native American languages are beginning to die. The objective of boarding schools was to kill the Indian and spare the man, but that objective failed. It is through future generations of Native Americans and elders as well as youth participating in restoring Native American cultures, beliefs, traditions, and language that the United States government of the early 20th century has failed; the Native American youth of today are all products of the failure of forced assimilation and a genocide of people.

As Wanna states, “By telling our stories, we’re opening a door, and we’re not going to shut it until we’re done with them…we want the public to hear what was happening to many Native American children in this country will non-Native people lived peacefully in their cities and towns and on their farms. Millions don’t know what we went through, and they need a quick history lesson. It’ll be a hard one, but it’s a fact.”[x]

[i] “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.” www.digitalhistory.uh.edu. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3505 (11/12/15).

[ii] Bear, Charla. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865 (11/12/15).

[iii] Ibid. ”American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.”

[iv] Ibid. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.”

[v] Ibid. “American Indian Boading Schools Haunt Many.”

[vi] Ibid. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.”

[vii] Volz, Matt. “Fort Peck Mom Sues School District, State Over Son’s Suicide.” www.buffalopost.net. http://www.buffalopost.net/category/suicide/ (11/12/15).

Megan Gourneau

[viii] Woodard, Stephanie. “South Dakota Boarding School Survivors Detail Sexual Abuse.” www.indiancountrymedianetwork.com. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/07/28/south-dakota-boarding-school-survivors-detail-sexual-abuse-42420 (11/12/15).

[ix] Ibid. “South Dakota Boarding School Survivors Detail Sexual Abuse.”

[x] Ibid. “South Dakota Boarding School Survivors Detail Sexual Abuse.”

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