Cruel DaysAmerica Faces the Ugly Legacy of Residential Schools

four Indigenous children at the Carlisle Indian School sit beside each other, showing how they were assimilated into European culture

Four Pueblo children from Zuni, New Mexico, before and after arriving at the Carlisle Indian School (Photo credit: John Nicholas Choate / Carlisle Indian Historical Society CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Amanda Gokee is Bitch Media’s 2021 Writing Fellow in Global Feminism

The remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves in British Columbia. A few weeks later, 751 unmarked graves were found in Saskatchewan. Both had been sites of residential boarding schools that operated during a period of forced assimilation in Canada beginning in the late 1800s. The Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan closed in 1997. In that time, 150,000 Indigenous children were enrolled in the schools, most after being forcibly removed from their families with the explicit purpose of stripping away their Native languages, customs, and beliefs. News coverage from July 2021 estimates that more than 1,100 bodies were found. These findings come six years after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2008, concluded with the acknowledgment that the schools, and the government program that created them, amounted to “cultural genocide.” 

In the custody of those schools, which were often run by the Catholic church, many Indigenous children became sick and died. Conditions were often squalid, corporal punishment was common, and children’s deaths weren’t formally documented. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse were routine. In the United States, where the residential-school model was already in place, the management and the conditions were similar. For both countries, the schools were a governmental effort to “civilize” Indigenous children by removing them from their homes and entrusting their education to the church and “persons of good moral character,” per the enabling legislation. There’s now an international spotlight on these unmarked graves. And though many people are undoubtedly learning about this part of Canadian and U.S. history for the first time, the boarding-school era isn’t something new for Indigenous peoples. It’s been a part of our family histories for generations now, with stories that have been passed down in the pain and silences of languages that were never taught. And when the news gets tired of this story, as it inevitably will, it will still be with us. It’s not a mistake that these graves weren’t marked.

The history of forced assimilation in North America isn’t taught in schools because it’s been either intentionally erased or willfully ignored by mainstream institutions. And while local communities have been aware of the legacy of boarding schools, what happened there has long gone undocumented. Now, Deb Haaland, the Biden administration’s Secretary of the Interior and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, has announced that, for the first time, the U.S. government will finally begin investigating this shameful chapter of American history. “The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said when she announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June 2021. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Indigenous scholars have long pointed out how colonization and patriarchy worked in tandem to violent ends. “Colonization has always been a gendered process,” writes Mi’kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence in a 2003 issue of Hypatia. She points to the church, in particular, as an institution that “has very specifically attacked the social status of Native women as a way of undermining the power of Native societies in general.” Indigenous Australians, for instance, remember the stolen generation—aboriginal children taken from their families by the Australian government from 1910 through the 1970s. There, too, the bent of the policy was patriarchal, seeking to “protect” the children in question, which is especially ironic given the intergenerational trauma that lives on in children decades later. Colonizers used boarding schools to force their ideas of gender onto Indigenous children from a young age. Students were trained based on rigid, European colonial gender norms. Girls were taught to do domestic work in preparation to become house servants or maids; boys could do blacksmithing, carpentry, or agriculture. In Canada, the aim was to turn Indigenous youth into “farmers and farmer’s wives,” relegating Indigenous women to a domestic, subservient role and removing them from political positions of power that were common in Native societies prior to colonialism.

Students in sewing class at the Carlisle Indian School full-size image

a group of Indigenous students, all wearing dresses, sit behind sewing machines at the Carlisle Indian School

Students attend sewing class at the Carlisle Indian School (Photo credit: Frances Benjamin Johnston/Carlisle Indian Historical Society CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Third and fourth genders that were commonly accepted and celebrated by many tribes were forbidden and discriminated against. “That totally messed up the multiple genders that many tribes had,” Davina Two Bears, a Dine scholar who spent years documenting the Old Leupp boarding school, tells Bitch. “The roles that these multiple genders had, they were important roles in Native American societies, and once they went to boarding school where they enforced Christianity, they were discriminated against.” Old Leupp closed in 1942, but reopened in 1943 as an internment camp for Japanese Americans; it’s now a large archaeological site. The local community has always known about its existence—many elders attended the school and mention of it is common in their oral history—but proper archaeological documentation is non-existent. Two Bears, whose grandparents attended the school, decided to change that, interviewing 16 survivors from the school. She learned students had gone hungry while enrolled there, they were lashed for speaking Navajo, and some students died while enrolled. Yet, there are no headstones for these children in the nearby cemetery. 

Bringing to light the horror of boarding schools should also illuminate the horror of what’s happening right now: the abuse of women, the abuse of the earth, and the abuse of treaty rights.

Despite the abuse, students spoke Navajo when teachers weren’t around. They sought solace from other students of the same clan. They resisted, and they survived. Two Bears found that survivors were only willing to say so much about the school, as if they kept the worst to themselves. I recognize the silence that surrounds the things that hurt. Those things were never spoken in my family. As an adult, I learned that my great-grandfather had been sent to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Boarding school, which opened in 1879 and closed in 1918. During that time, approximately 10,000 children from 140 tribes were sent there, and the school became the model for other schools that were subsequently opened. The school’s agenda of forced assimilation was summed up in its motto “Kill the Indian, to save the man,” a phrase coined by the school’s founder, U.S. General Richard Pratt. He ran the school, which had previously been a barracks, like the military. My great-grandfather, whom I know as Makoons, entered the school in 1909, just nine years before it closed. Reports from the school said that he was “ill quite a bit.”

According to some of the records, Makoons only stayed in the school for a year before running away, to return home. He was lucky and, I imagine, strong-willed. He made it out of the school alive. The stories my family liked telling were from later, when Makoons embarked on an epic cross-country canoe journey. He built the canoe himself, and he wore regalia on his trip. The school’s goal had been to wipe his culture away, but they failed. The United States has long had a paternalistic legal relationship with tribes, and schools like Carlisle are just one example of policies that cast tribes as inferior, removed their autonomy, and stripped their right to self-govern. The power of the state to insert itself into Indigenous families, to take children away from parents while asserting that the state was better equipped to raise and educate them, is a strategy colonial regimes the world over have used.

But it’s worth wondering about all the attention on the past when violence against Indigenous people is ongoing. The United States continues to perpetuate its paternal relationship with tribes by violating treaty rights—like allowing Enbridge to construct Line 3, a pipeline that would bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin. With the construction of a pipeline, in turn, comes man camps—temporary housing for the well-paid, typically male workers who make it possible for such pipelines to stretch across the land and waters. When those camps come to town, they often become “hotbed[s] of violence” that fuel the ongoing crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women who are killed at 10 times the rate of the average American. And when unarmed Indigenous protesters gather to protect water and land, as they did at Standing Rock, they’re met with militarized officers who use tear gas and rubber bullets. In some Wisconsin jails, as many as half the inmates are Native. And the voting restrictions in Arizona that were recently upheld by the Supreme Court will disproportionately impact rural voters on reservations. Police brutality against Indigenous people in the United States, Canada and Australia goes largely unseen and often undocumented. And “even today, Indigenous children in Canada are taken away from their families disproportionately,” Mary Annette Pember writes in Indian Country Today. “In 2016, more than 52 percent of children in foster care were Indigenous despite making up only 7.7 percent of the population.”

Indigenous students build furnituee at the Carlisle Indian School in 1901 one-third image

Indigenous students build furniture at the Carlisle Indian School in 1901

Indigenous students build furniture at the Carlisle Indian School in 1901 (Photo credit: Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress)

Nishnaabeg scholar and author Leanne Simpson has pointed to the limitations of the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts, which emerged from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada’s largest-ever class-action settlement. The agreement mandated the Truth and Reconciliation initiative, which cost the Canadian government $72 million and allowed about 6,500 witnesses to testify to the impacts, both direct and indirect, of residential schools on their lives. The effort created a historical record and prompted the Canadian government to issue an apology for the country’s role in the residential schools, but questions still remain for Simpson. “What are the consequences for Indigenous peoples of participating in a process that attempts to absolve Canada of past wrongdoings, while they continue to engage with our nations in a less than honorable way?” she asks in her 2011 book, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back.

“It reminds me of an abusive relationship where one person is being abused physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. She wants to be out of the relationship, but instead of supporting her, we are all gathered around the abuser, because he wants to ‘reconcile,’” she writes. In other words, it’s insufficient to look at the violence of boarding-school programs as a relic, because the violence is ongoing. Bringing to light the horror of what happened in boarding schools should also illuminate the horror of what’s happening right now: the abuse that women face, the abuse of the earth, and the abuse of treaty rights. There can be no reconciliation without acknowledging them. As with the broader reckoning around race in the United States, the Interior Department’s investigation will likely spark anger and denial for the same conservative strain of American whose core narrative about their country conveniently erases much of the violence done in its name. But because the past bleeds into the present in ways that we are just starting to name, none of us should look away.


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Amanda Gokee is an Ojibwe journalist living in New Hampshire, where she writes for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Her work has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlas Obscura, and VTDigger.