The horrific mistreatment meted out to Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries has been well-chronicled, whether through a long list of broken treaties, forced relocation and even the killing of buffalo as a means of starvation and submission.
Perhaps less well-known, however, is the way children of American Indians, along with those of Hawaiian and Alaskan natives, were snatched away from their families and shipped off to boarding schools operated by the United States well into the middle of the last century. Once they were “enrolled,” for want of a better term, they learned nothing of their own cultures or languages, were given English names and were forced to conform to a model that emphasized obedience and Christianity.
The object was to “civilize” them.
The schools were not the beneficiaries of largesse. In the late 1800s, it was considered a mark of progress when students no longer had to share things like toothbrushes. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that they were subject to abuse in the forms of corporal punishment, flogging, slapping and solitary confinement. The deaths of scores of students at the schools have been confirmed. It’s believed that hundreds of other deaths went undocumented.
The full scope of the atrocities that were committed at the schools was outlined in a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Interior. The 106-page document follows a similar effort undertaken in Canada, which had similar boarding schools with similar objectives and similarly tragic results.
Upon the release of the report, Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said, “This report places the federal Indian boarding school system in its historical context, explaining that the United States established the system as part of a broader objective to dispossess Indian tribes, Alaskan Native villages, and the Native Hawaiian community of their territories to support the expansion of the United States. The federal Indian boarding school policy was intentionally targeted at American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children to assimilate them and, consequently, take their territories.”
The schools were finally closed in 1969, but their impact is still being felt. The students who attended these schools and are still alive have had worse health outcomes over the years, with a greater likelihood they would develop cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a Native American, said the schools caused “intergenerational trauma,” and their effect was “heartbreaking and undeniable.” The report’s publication is the prelude to a yearlong “Road to Healing” tour where survivors will be able to tell their stories. The Interior Department also hopes to put together an oral history of the schools.
The recent hullabaloo about teaching critical race theory in public schools has little to do with the theory itself, which is mostly taught in graduate and law schools, but with the desire to whitewash or downplay the atrocities committed against Black Americans over the centuries and how that discrimination is still playing out in our society. That should not be swept under the rug, and nor should the cruelty this country’s natives were subjected to.