‘War against the children’: The US government, Native American children and boarding schools
There are now over 500 Native American boarding schools accounted for in the United States. Eight were in Utah
“They went after our language, our culture, our family ties, our land. They succeeded on almost every level,” Ben Sherman told The New York Times. “Don’t try to tell me this isn’t genocide.”
Sherman, now 83 and a retired aerospace engineer, is also a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who spent four years in a Native American boarding school in South Dakota. Sherman believes that after the “shooting wars” by the United States government against Native Americans had subsided, the government was “not done with war, so the next phase involved war against the children.”
Enter Native American boarding schools.
‘Vast and entrenched’
“From small shacks in remote Alaskan outposts to refurbished military barracks in the Deep South to large institutions up and down both the West and East coasts,” Native American boarding schools took in children from across the country.
Incomplete records and scant government attention let the stories of these schools largely fade into oblivion. For many students of those schools and their families, the trauma “never went away.”
Recently, however, more concerted efforts are being made to identify the schools and the children who went there, as well as those who never left. Last year, the Department of the Interior, under the leadership of Deb Haaland, released a report identifying 408 schools in 37 states, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven in Hawaii, from 1819 to 1969.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition announced that they had identified another 115 schools, bringing the total to 523 in 38 states. They identified one additional school in Utah, bringing this state’s total to 8. They found 22 more in Hawaii, bringing that state’s total to 29. They found even more in Oklahoma, the state with the most schools identified, now standing at 95.
Most of the additional schools did not receive federal funds, but were run by religious groups and churches, reports The Washington Post. Many were Catholic, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, but also included small congregations of Quakers, Congregationalists and others.
Scattering the children
Richard Henry Pratt, a military officer who fought in the 1870s to forcibly remove multiple tribes from the Southern Plains, dreamt of abolishing all Native American reservations and “scattering the entire population of Native children across the country, with some 70,000 white families each taking in one Native American child,” reports The New York Times.
While he was not successful in bringing that vision to fruition, he started down that road by creating the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1879. The school took in Native American children from as far away as Alaska and tried to “civilize” them. In 1892, Pratt delivered a speech at a convention, where he said,
A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Pratt then praised the benefits of slavery for Black people and said it was now the responsibility of the United States to “civilize” Native Americans.
The “civilizing” process, or “assimilation” was, as Pratt described by wanting to “Kill the Indian in him,” a brutal one. Children’s hair was cut off, their native apparel burned. They were dressed in Western apparel, their names changed and their religion changed. They were “hired out” to do menial jobs, with the schools retaining any fees received.
Moderating a panel at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City last year, Utah State University student Taylor “Cheii” Begay said, “This assimilation process, the boarding school era, it was a war tactic.”
“They tried to kill us”
For noncompliant students, punishment could border on torture. Being whipped with a cat-o’-nine tails, being paraded naked for other students to beat with belts, being thrown into walls, doused with fire hoses, having food withheld, being publicly humiliated and more. Sexual abuse was rampant, report both The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The New York Times reports that in 1891, the Grand Junction News printed an exchange between the superintendent of the Grand Junction Indian School in Colorado and the secretary of the Interior. The superintendent informed the secretary that one of the boys at the school could not fit his foot into the government-issued shoe because he had six toes. “What shall I do?” asked the superintendent? “Off with his toe!” came the reply. So, off came the toe.
Not every student counts their time at Native American boarding schools as traumatic. For some, it was not, including Cris Polk, from the Yakama Tribe of Washington, who told KSL earlier this year that those were the best four years of her life, and where she met her lifelong best friend.
Andy Merrick, chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, met his wife at Intermountain Indian School. They celebrated their 43rd anniversary this year.
“I love this place. I love the mountains and the memories I have here,” Merrick said to KSL. “One of the best times of my life was out here in Utah.”
Truth and healing
Those with fond memories are the exception. By 1928, the Meriam report detailed how children were “malnourished, overworked and harshly disciplined.” Forty-one years later, in 1969, a U.S. Senate report reported on the failures of the system. That report spurred support for the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975 and then the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a challenge to ICWA in a decision praised by tribes and Utah’s elected officials, including Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch summed up the importance of ICWA, stating that it “secure(s) the right of Indian parents to raise their families as they please; the right of Indian Children to grow in their culture; and the right of Indian communities to resist fading into the twilight of history.”
When Deb Haaland was appointed the first Native American to head the Department of the Interior, she brought with her boarding school legacies. Her grandparents were stolen from their families as children and she grew up hearing their stories. Her great-grandfather was taken to the infamous Carlisle Indian School. She cried with her grandmother as her grandmother shared her loneliness and sadness at being separated from her family.
“Acknowledging these painful truths and gaining a full understanding of their impacts” will help heal painful “threads of trauma and injustice,” she wrote in 2021. Over the past year, she has been around the country on a “Road to Healing Tour.”
Last year’s report was one of two. The second report will focus on the number of children who died at the boarding schools. Investigators expect that number to be in the “thousands or tens of thousands.” With sparse records of the children, or even where the cemeteries are located, the final number is likely to remain unknown. At least one excavation in the United States this summer found no remains.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy