The traumatic legacy of residential schools and the struggle to reclaim Indigenous ancestors

After the remains of over 1,300 First Nations students were discovered at former residential school sites in Canada earlier this year, the United States now faces its own moment of judgment with its history of residential schools. In response to these findings, Home Secretary Deb Haaland (a member of the Pueblo de Laguna) announced a Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative to examine “the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

In Carlisle, Pa., Efforts have been underway since 2016 to return the remains of Indigenous children to their appropriate resting places. Carlisle was home to the first off-reserve Indian residential school in the United States – Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Today it is an army barracks, which houses the US Army War College for senior officers. But from 1879 to 1918, it housed native students from tribes across America, with the express purpose of assimilating them into American culture.

Barbara Landis, a retired biographer and historian who has studied extensively at the school, occasionally gives tours of the barracks. On a tour I attended earlier this month, she pointed to a row of white houses that surround a grassy communal area.

“These three cottages that you see along the perimeter of the southern part of the school grounds,” said Landis, “were cottages built by Native American children as part of their industrial training.” The Carlisle school had academic training for half the day and industrial training the other half – mostly cheap manual labor. Many buildings were constructed by students as part of this program, but they would also be sent to the surrounding community to provide work for non-native families. The boys received construction and farm work, while the girls worked at home.

But upon entering the barracks, the first thing one will notice is the cemetery: rows of white tombstones where the students are buried. For four decades, around 8,000 students attended school and nearly 200 were buried there. Now the number of graves in Carlisle is gradually decreasing, since efforts began several years ago to return the remains of the students to their tribes and families.

Sometimes parents of students in Carlisle received notice of their child’s death only after they were buried. The cause was often attributed to the disease, although abuse was often rampant in these schools. The entire residential school system has long condemned by Native Americans as a form of cultural genocide.

The idea for the school, the first of its kind in America, began in 1879 with Richard Henry Pratt, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. “He was born out of his experience as a jailer of a group of Kiowa, Comanche and Arapaho prisoners of war who were arrested by the United States and sentenced to three years in prison at Fort Marion, which is now the former Castillo de Fort de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, “Landis said.” And by working with these prisoners, Pratt developed his philosophy in Indian education. ”

This philosophy is best summed up by a phrase to which it is often attributed: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Pratt was influenced by Puritan beliefs and, in the POW camp, converted 12 prisoners to Christianity. He was successful in getting those 12 prisoners to help him recruit children for the Carlisle Indian School, which became Carlisle’s first class.

“The students, when they entered the school, their hair was cut off,” Landis said, “They were in uniform. They were organized into regiments, units and battalions. Pratt being in the military, he designed the program to also be a regimented structure. ”

Part of this regimented structure was a ranking system in which older students inflicted punishment on their subordinates if they disobeyed orders.

“So you can imagine the psychological impact of that kind of structure on Native American children and their peers. It was all part of the process of maintaining discipline and policing at school.”

The government created these schools to assimilate American Indians into the dominant culture of the time – white American culture – says Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, professor and head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of the Arizona, and registered member of the Hopi tribe. of northeastern Arizona. “The government had established these schools to teach Indian students, some of whom were only four or five years old, industrial trades so that they could be ‘useful members of American society’ and bring this training back to their communities. , or resume training in the predominantly white communities that surrounded the Indian school.

Gilbert said he believed Haaland would be in a central position to lead efforts to uncover potential graves at American Indian boarding schools. Denise Lajimodiere, recently retired, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at NDSU and founding member of the National Indian Residential Schools Healing Coalition (NNABSHC), think so too. She remembers hearing an interview with Deb Haaland on a podcast:

“One of the questions they asked him was, ‘Do you think we will find anonymous graves in residential schools in the United States similar to what we have found in Canada? And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘I can’t answer that.’ “

“But I can answer that. Absolutely. A resounding yes, we will find anonymous graves in residential schools.”

Researcher Preston McBride believes the number of graves found could be up to 40,000 here in the US. “That’s a lot.” Gilbert said. “It’s more than I ever thought. And so there is a story there, and I’m happy that with this revelation taking place in Canada, it will shed more light.”

In Carlisle, the repatriation process is underway. In 2016, at the request of a member of the Northern Arapaho, the US military began working with tribes to repatriate the remains of those buried in Carlisle. The process takes place once a year (with a break in 2020 due to COVID). The most recent of these repatriations took place in July; the majority of those returned were from the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, which held ceremonies in Carlisle and throughout the journey back to their reservation.

Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux attended the final ceremony in South Dakota, where the remains were re-buried. He says the experience was a lesson in humility: “Being there you basically stepped back in time just imagining what they went through as young children.”

I asked him what he expected from the investigation launched earlier this year by Home Secretary Deb Haaland into residential schools, and he said he hoped it would bring the real story of what happened to them. arrived.

“This story that happened to us, you know, there have been attempts over and over again to whitewash it, saying it didn’t happen. And it did. So it’s better that America find out what really happened, “he said. “And then they can understand our plight, our situation on reserve, but also understand that… we want to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to depend on our federal government. We want to move forward.”

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