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Survivors of the US Indian Boarding School System
From the vantage point of the 21st century, when we think or talk about “holocaust” – meaning slaughter on a mass scale – we think of Hitler’s extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II. But this was not history’s first genocide – and, sadly, it wasn't the last. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler states that he modeled his efforts on American’s treatment of slaves and native people. The approach hinged on breaking spirits by forcibly separating parents from children, rounding them up and making them live together in a concentrated way, and stripping them of the traditional signifiers of their culture and society.
Founding Father and US President, Thomas Jefferson, spoke of the need to “eliminate” or “extirpate” Native Americans. President Andrew Jackson promulgated the 1830 Indian Removal Act, resulting in the genocidal Trail of Tears. Civil War General, Philip Sheridan, was known for his slogan, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
This is the story of the unknown, unsung, nameless thousands who confronted the savage approach of their self-styled "civilizers." They are heroes simply because they endured.
The earliest settlers to North America tried subjugating the indigenous peoples by “civilizing” them, bringing them over to a more European way of life. When that didn’t work, they went for all-out extermination. The Indian Wars were indiscriminate – peaceful tribes were disseminated along with warring ones; no one – not child, woman, or elder – was spared. But when the violence wrought by extermination became too much for the greater population to bear, the government needed a new "peaceful" strategy.
Their approach involved crushing culture. A school model blossomed intent on laying hands on children – the younger the better – then methodically stripping them of the identity of their birth and inculcating them with Euro-centric values. The result was the Indian Boarding School, designed by former Indian fighter, Capt. Richard Pratt.
Pratt professed "assimilation through total immersion." He tested his social experiment on Apache prisoners of war. He cut their long hair – a source of pride for indigenous men – he put them in uniform, forbade them from speaking their native tongue, forced them to learn English, and made them march, subjecting them to strict military protocols.
Missionaries, especially, bought into the scheme and ran the schools for the US federal government, a sword in one hand and a bible in the other. By 1885, 106 Indian Boarding Schools had been established, many of them on abandoned military installations. Assimilation efforts included forcibly removing American Indian children from their families, converting them to Christianity, preventing them from learning or practicing indigenous culture and customs, and living under strict discipline, military fashion. From the moment children arrived at school, they were not allowed to "be Indian" in any way.
As with Pratt’s Apache prisoners, the children’s braids were cut (a source of shame, especially for boys), they were put in uniforms and given English names. They were not allowed to speak their own languages, even between each other, suffering harsh punishments – like getting their mouths washed out with lye soap – if they faltered. They had to attend church services and suffered solitary confinement and beatings with sticks, rulers, and belts for even minor offenses.
Children were not allowed to leave school to see their parents, sometimes for years; likewise, their parents were not allowed to visit. The Indian boarding schools destroyed families and tribal societies. Generations upon generations of American Indian children were brainwashed into believing that their language, culture, clothing, identity – even their parents – were evil.
For well over 100 years, until as late as the 1970s, the US government subsidized the running and maintenance of over 100 of these assimilation schools. Teachers saw their role as “civilizing” the students not educating them. Their intent was to transform American Indian youth from the inside and out. “Erase and Replace” was their “non-violent” means to suppress and destroy native cultures. But was it?
Once the children graduated and were allowed to leave school, they found they fit in nowhere. They were alienated at home, yet faced racial prejudice and discrimination in greater society. Many turned to alcoholism and drug abuse, leading to further disintegration of native culture. Some suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) throughout life due to the abuses – beatings, deprivation of food and water, and even sexual assault – they suffered at the hands of their boarding school masters.
In the end, the policy worked, starting with the pacification -- or breaking the spirit of -- American Indian parents by taking then holding their children hostage.
Between the years 1500 and 2000, the native population of the US plummeted from many millions to roughly two hundred thousand. Most were taken out by violence and disease; the rest by an educational methodology meant to “civilize the savage” through cultural theft and forced assimilation. This post honors those who survived this version of American concentration camps – the Indian Boarding Schools.
History cannot erase what you had to endure. May your experience, therefore, stand as an example so that similar events never take place again.