Truth and reconciliation project series #3

Kyle Simonson and Gavin Nadeau

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How American Indian boarding school contributed to feelings of mistrust

This article is a part of the wider Truth and Reconciliation series of articles, and seeks to provide some historical context about what American Indians have faced in history and how they continue to be affected today.

The story of the American Indian Boarding Schools is that of attempted assimilation. It started as day schools on or near the reservations, where young American Indians were offered a chance to attend school during the day, and return home in the evening.

In the eyes of assimilationists, this did not go far enough—the children were too well connected to home life and it did not provide the desired effect of “civilizing” them into white American culture. As General Richard H. Pratt, a champion behind assimilation often phrased it, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

General Pratt was the founder and longtime superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which established a model for other Indian boarding schools. American Indian children were recruited from across the country to attend. If parents resisted, they were often coaxed or coerced into the idea that it was just about education. In the end, they were torn from their families and severed from their indigenous culture.

At Carlisle and at other Indian boarding institutions, American Indian children were strictly forbidden to speak their tribal languages or practice their native religion. Their clothing was burned and replaced with military drab, and long hair was cut and styled in Euro-American fashion.

Cutting an Indian child’s hair might not seem significant at first blush, but it was an emasculating process for most natives. As American Indian Studies academic Anton Treuer describes in Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, the cutting of hair is an expression of the loss of a loved one, a loss of a relationship, and a loss of a part of self.

The idea behind this process was not new. As General Pratt wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1890, “If millions of black savages can become so transformed and assimilated, and if, annually hundreds of thousands of emigrants from all lands can also become Anglicized, Americanized, assimilated and absorbed through association, there is but one plain duty resting upon us with regard to the Indians, and that is to relieve them of their savagery and other alien qualities by the same methods used to relieve others.”

Ultimately, the assimilation attempt failed—there are 566 federally recognized tribes of the United States still active today—but its effects still linger. For American Indians, the boarding school left a lasting distrust of the entire U.S. education system.

Many American Indian educators recognize this distrust and that it is so strong that young American Indians often choose not to attend post-secondary schools.

When considering the history of boarding schools, it’s important to remember that this is not so distant history. Many of the native students on the University of North Dakota campus have parents, grandparents and other relatives who have attended American Indian boarding schools – indeed, one of the writers in this series of articles had a grandfather who attended one. The effects of this “historical” trauma remain in the family to this day.

Before there can be reconciliation and healing, we have to come to terms with this “historical” trauma that affects many native students. Before we can be truly inclusive and diverse, we need understanding.