Before we move into this piece, we wanted to pause here and honor, along with you, the lives of those children. Every Native/First Nations person you know or have read about is either a survivor of these schools, or the child or the grandchild of a survivor. Every single one. By 1926, 83% of Native children were attending boarding schools in the US. The schools began to formally close in the 1960s and early 1970s. This is not history. This is our lifetime, your lifetime. The two of us writing this piece were alive as the boarding schools began to close. Children taken away, stolen, from families, from culture, from tribe and kin. Children who were stolen and disappeared. Their bodies are being reclaimed and honored. Before moving on to the rest of this piece, pause here. Pause. May we never treat the stories of these children as only information but instead, remember them throughout this conversation as living vibrant beings, as our relatives.
According to the Boarding School Healing Project, beginning with the Indian Civilization Act Fund of March 3, 1819 and the Peace Policy of 1869, the United States, in concert with and at the urging of several denominations of the Christian Church, adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy. This policy intended to wage cultural genocide through the removal and reprogramming of American Indian and Alaska Native children to systemically continue the destruction of Native cultures and communities. Residential schools in Canada began at around the same time, with the first established in 1830 in Ontario by the Anglican Church. The stated purpose of these schools was simple: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Attendance was mandatory. No one knows exactly how many children were forcibly or sometimes voluntarily removed from their homes, their families, their tribes, their communities. The rules were strict: no expression of any aspect of tribal culture and identity. This means not speaking your own language including using your own name. It includes not going back home during holidays or when someone you love has died or because you were tired and sad and just wanted to be home again. The curriculum of the schools focused on Christian indoctrination, on reading, writing and speaking English, on something called citizenship training which included learning (and assimilating into) the American political system, Greek and Roman histories of democracy; American farming techniques and the importance of striving to own private property, and Christian monogamous family structures including gender and sexual behavior. Falling within all of these were forced teachings on Euro-Christian ideas of self-control, self-denial, discipline, and order. Children were forced to cut their hair, to wear school uniforms, to learn how to cook and eat European/white foods and to use European/white eating and cooking protocols. School by school, there were hundreds of other protocols, all designed to force Native children to “be civilized.”
Recent online reflections from elders in conversation with Remembering the Children, a project focused on unearthing the truth behind the Rapid City Indian School, remembered the many children who died because they grew ill from diseases they had no natural immunity for or who were killed as a result of beatings and abuse or who tried to run away and were hit by trains or violent weather. They shared stories of children who died because they were starving from the lack of food and, in trying to cook for themselves, died from stoves exploding or water pots boiling over; their small child bodies not able to lift a pan of boiling water safely
Eugenics emerged as a “scientific” belief system alongside the growing popularity of the theory of evolution. Eugenics is based on the idea that if you can control reproduction in order to increase the number of positive factors in a population you can then decrease the negative. Everything about ideas of positive versus negative were – and are – embedded with racism and xenophobia, ableism gender essentialism, Christian supremacy, and more. “Positive” means as-close-as-possible to a Christian, able-bodied, thin, white, male, straight ideal. Eugenics practices include forced sterilization or the prevention of some bodies from reproducing, the institutionalization of categories of people to prevent them from “mingling” with the general population such as through psychiatric institutions and prisons, medical experimentation focused on changing aspects of a person’s physical, mental or emotional state of being to align with the “ideal” standard (often done without consent), and more.
The majority of people targeted by state-sanctioned eugenics practices include those living with a range of types of disabilities, those perceived to be queer or sexually promiscuous or in bodies that do not meet the standard, people of color, indigenous people, Black people, poor people, people living with addictions, and people perceived to exhibit “criminal” behavior. These standards of what is “positive” and what is “negative” came to Turtle Island (North America) along with the settlers. Some of the earliest laws in the British colonies focused on capital offenses, or those acts seen to disrupt the Puritan social order. These early colonial laws included sex crimes, adultry, drunken-ness, sodomy and buggery, criminal behavor, illiteray, “heathenism” and “mental unfitness.” While posing as science, eugenics frameworks were focused primarily on forcing people and communities to fit these early Puritan ideals.
The creation of boarding schools was and is an example of this same strategy. In this case, taking children and force-teaching them to become individuals who are different and separated from their histories, their cultures, their families and communities. Boarding school policies are all about asserting an “ideal” way of being human and, literally, attempting to kill the Indian to save the man. What was hailed as attending to life as sacred in the Christian framework expressed a violent contradiction as children, once they were considered ready, were often stolen and adopted into white families without any chance to return home and without any communication with their families and kin about their final whereabouts. For many families, for many kin, the discovery of the bodies of those children who were buried with ceremony or care at boarding school campuses is the first time finding out if their children are dead or had been adopted out into the white world. As western medical science progressed, it expanded its strategy to continue the destruction of indigenous culture and community: in the 1960s and 70s the United States Indian Health Service forcibly sterilized thousands of Native women.
For over 500 years, medicine as a tool of colonization, of violence, has emerged alongside, and sometimes overtaking, the truth of care work. The language of the schools used the language of health and wellness to justify their existence. This thinking is part of what shaped the white Christian saviorism that these schools depended on:
The work of the school, then, is to build up from the beginning “the whole child,” to expiate the sins of the past by heroic work in the present. Free gymnastic exercises and breathing exercises, introduced into the classroom work, would be very helpful to these students to relieve the tortured muscles unaccustomed to long sitting, to expand the poorly developed chests and to form a habit of quick obedience. From a teacher’s standpoint it might seem a doubtful expenditure of time to introduce a ten minute exercise between recitations, but the drill would be very beneficial, and progressively so, as the students advanced in years, and became able to take more complicated exercises. This would, in a measure, take the place of a military drill, where that is impractical, though I believe that something like a military inspection is always possible and always healthful and should be recommended both for MORAL AND PHYSICAL REASONS.
Martha Waldron, “The Indian in Relation to Health,” read at the Convention of Indian Educational Associations, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1896.
.It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.
How old are you? How old are your parents, your grandparents? Who of your people were children in 1978? Who were already adults? None of this is just information. We want to pause here, again, to remember and hold those who did not survive these things, those who did survive this, and their descendants. And to listen as they continue to fight back, to mourn and to remember.