In May, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland released the first volume of an investigative report examining hundreds of American federal boarding schools’ complicity in the destruction of Indigenous nations across what we now call the United States. This is the perfect occasion to revisit and shed a light on one of the most shameful episodes in American history.
Historian and award-winning activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that after nearly a century of uninterrupted westward expansion and incremental genocide, the American government tried to assimilate, rather than exterminate, rebellious Indians clinging on to dwindling reservations in the late 1800s. The man who led the charge was General Richard Henry Pratt, the first superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School based in Pennsylvania.
Pratt ran Carlisle like a military boot camp. Tabatha Booth says that Native American children were strictly forbidden from speaking Indigenous languages upon entering the school. Teachers and staff ruthlessly purged any outward expressions of tribal culture by assigning their students English names.
Yet historians K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Jeffrey Ostler emphasize that Pratt, for all his faults, at least believed that Native Americans possessed the intellectual capacities to become fully-fledged citizens of the U.S. in the fullness of time. His contemporaries and successors, however, did not.
Alexandria Gough says Estelle Reel, the national Superintendent of Indian Schools in the early 1900s, echoed American public opinion when she declared that Indians were “too dull to excel in academics.” Vocational training and “outing programs” (exchanges that allowed Indian youths to live and work in white society) quickly superseded traditional education.
Indian boarding schools, therefore, abandoned the pretense of moulding “savages” into enlightened citizens and transformed into miniature gulags dedicated to churning out generations of unskilled labourers.
Euro-Americans have condemned Indigenous peoples to toil in menial jobs since before white colonists founded the United States. Scholars and journalists like Margaret Newell, Brett Rushforth, and Rebecca Onion amply demonstrated that English, French, and Spanish colonists, along with their descendants, perceived Native American tribes as little more than expendable resources.
In the 1630s, New England colonists, eager to replenish a minuscule workforce, waged war against the Pequot peoples with the explicit intention of capturing Indians and turning them into slave labourers. When English colonists crushed Pequot resistance in Connecticut, they sold defeated Indian men to plantations in the West Indies, while captured women and children became maids and servants at the service of wealthy New England households.
French colonists yearning for domestic labor in Montreal also purchased Sioux Indians, shipped over from British colonies. Rushforth estimates that 2 to 4 million Indigenous people in North and South America suffered the indignity of slavery for centuries.
The implicit aim of seemingly benign boarding school work experience programs, then, was to keep Indian children inextricably shackled to the kind of degrading labor that blighted the lives of their ancestors.
Gough’s extensive research reveals that in cities like Phoenix, which lacked large immigrant or African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white middle- and upper-class families often relied on Indian children or teenagers to complete backbreaking chores.
Many patrons had no qualms exploiting unsupervised and vulnerable Indian children. Boys ended up as cheap labour in construction sites, mines, or farms, and girls were often assigned as domestic labourers.
Irene McAfee claimed her day began at four in the morning and finished around nine at night. A young girl named Stella complained that whenever she tried to take a break from her exhausting schedule just to clean her own clothes, her patron would berate her for not ironing family clothes first. Reports even stated that some Indian girls either quit the outing program or had to be transferred to different families because they weren’t given enough food to eat. Clara Lewis, braving loneliness and agonizing back pain during her time as a domestic in Tucson, said she never worked so hard in her life, defiantly exclaiming, “I am not going to be a slave to anybody I tell you that.”
In her resignation letter, one matron neatly summarized why outing programs had little pedagogical value and utterly failed to “civilize” or assimilate Indian children: “The people for whom the girls work teach them nothing, but simply pile up the hard and dirty work…”
Historian Margaret Jacobs added that many Indigenous women employed as domestics in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of whom were “graduates” of the Carson Indian School in Nevada, resented having nearly every aspect of their professional and private lives policed by white authorities. Apart from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ stifling control, these women faced abysmal working conditions, overly demanding employers, labour abuse, restricted leisure time, and indifferent work placement staff determined to “keep Indian girls down” and forever trapped in low-paying jobs.
The few Indian women who dared speak out about these conditions faced dire consequences. For example, women who resisted officials attempting to separate them from their children born out of wedlock risked being locked away in asylums.
Worst of all, outing programs generally did not help Indians thrive or survive in American society. Endemic discrimination meant even graduates struggled to find rewarding jobs. Upward mobility was an impossibility, and many returned to impoverished reservations bereft of modern technology or opportunities.
“By the time I returned to the village I could sew, but few of the people had heard of sewing machines,” Nora Naranjo-Morse lamented. “The machine I learned to operate as my trade could not be carried here and there…”
The totalitarian discipline boarding schools meted out, combined with the arduous and occasionally dangerous year-long work experiences, left an indelible mark on countless Indigenous children. Social worker Sharon Brunner found that brutal teaching methods and excessive negative feedback traumatized Indigenous children. One woman named Yulanda, who attended the Holy Childhood Boarding School in Michigan, avoided jobs involving numbers, budgets, or mathematics throughout her life due to her harrowing ordeals in class. “The hair was pulled out of my head,” she said. “Plus they would grab you by the hair and slam you into the chalkboard.”
Extreme corporal punishment was the norm. Beatings, whippings, and floggings caused severe injuries like broken bones. Minor infractions, like wetting the bed, earned students an overnight stay in the fire exit outside – no matter the season or weather. Jennifer, of the Ojibway tribe, remembers hearing children locked in dungeons scream all night long. The Haskell Institute in Kansas even had a jail called a guard house – a stone room with no windows. Children could be imprisoned there for days.
Evidence of this appalling mistreatment rarely trickled out of school grounds. Priests and nuns, some of whom were guilty of rampant sexual abuse, forced children like Yulanda to write bland and predictable letters to parents every other week. Censors removed any mention of the sadistic cruelty and borderline torture children had to go through in the name of assimilation.
The release of Newland’s report is a monumental achievement, but more needs to be done to make a real difference for those still living in the boarding schools’ shadow. Brunner cautions that social workers dealing with Indigenous populations must be aware of the symptoms of what psychologists call “residential-school syndrome,” like alcoholism, domestic violence, and child abuse, before developing treatment plans that could benefit Indian communities as a whole.
Finally, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has argued, the U.S. government has a legal and moral obligation to honour the numerous treaties it signed with Indian nations – treaties which guarantee the reconstruction, expansion, and preservation of sacred lands. Only then will Native Americans be able to retrieve their stolen sovereignty and dignity.
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