Going Off the Reservation?

Going Off the Reservation?

For Western, English-speaking readers, the 19th century British author Charles Dickens was perhaps the major portrayer of boarding schools as evil. Think Oliver Twist. Boarding schools constituted a nightmare residence for children: stern, punishing headmasters, sadistic headmistresses, brutal teachers, deprivation of food and warmth, physical punishment, and other evils accumulated on the page — and, I imagine, in real life too — to terrify scores of us growing up. Think Jane Eyre.

But a real history of boarding schools is no less frightening, corrupt, or cruel, and any child worth her rebellion would be wise to try and shun them. Now, with the revived interest in Native American and more broadly, Indigenous history, we come bang up against boarding schools.

In August, the New York Times ran a special featured series on the Native American boarding school system wherein, they wrote, “for more than 150 years, spurred by federal assimilation policies beginning in the early 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were sent to boarding schools across the country. In many cases, they were forcibly removed from their home.” Not that this was the only indignity, even atrocity, committed by Europeans against the Indigenous population of North America which overall approached genocide, and in some cases, did eradicate entire Native nations. This was, shall we say, a subtler form of devastation, going under the euphemistic name of assimilation.

Depending on location, government policy at the time, and degree of religious zealotry, the boarding school movement through its various agents would seize custody of children (or manipulate parents into voluntarily doing so), and abduct them sometimes many miles away to otherwise inaccessible locales. Parents who resisted the boarding school system could be severely punished. The mother of three-year-old Nu-shukk of the Tlingkit tribe was incarcerated in 1895 after refusing to return her daughter to Douglas Island Friends Mission School (a Quaker school!).

Once in the boarding school, the children were subject to the following: their hair would be cut short (of particularly significant violation among certain peoples, like the Lakota), they would be assigned new English names and prohibited from using their own names, forbidden to speak their language or practice their Native religion (they were forced to attend Christian churches), and observe their own culture (including holidays, religious and otherwise). The last of the Indian Wars was still ongoing, and in many cases, when the parents were captives of war, their children (the children of “the enemy” and often treated as such) were sent to boarding schools. Moreover, under the pretense of education, the boarding school system would put the children to work.

The labor was not light and was, not surprisingly, deeply gendered. The little boys would be sent to do farm work, leatherwork (repairing harnesses and saddles), construction work, tending to farm animals, planting and harvesting and working the fields. The little girls would be put to doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and so called feminine work that would “educate” them for service as maids. There were frequent beatings, and punishments by solitary confinement; the children often ran away, only to be tracked by professionals trained to do that job, and they would then be returned for further punishment.

The work the children did sustained the institutions in which the children were being kept, and as I’ve noted, also trained them for service. Both were money-making exercises. In fact, monetization of the boarding school era was connected with other aspects of the European conquest.

As Brenda Child, a historian whose Ojibwe grandparents were sent to Native boarding schools, emphasizes, the period of the greatest expansion of the boarding school system — from the last decades of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th — coincided with colossal theft of Indigenous land. When Native American boarding schools were opening at a steady clip around the country, the General Allotment Act of 1887 allowed federal authorities to divide up and distribute Native lands. The law effectively turbocharged land dispossession, allowing white people to take control of “surplus” land belonging to Indigenous peoples.

“Indian people lost 90 million acres of land during the half century that assimilation policy dominated Indian education in the United States,” says Dr. Child, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. This was certainly the largest land grab in the history of this country, and possibly the world — 90,000,000 acres. Land dispossession and funding for Native American boarding schools went hand in hand. To help pay for the federal boarding school system, the federal government used money from trust accounts set aside for the benefit of tribal nations as part of treaties in which they ceded lands to the United States. In other words, the United States government effectively made Indigenous peoples use their own funds to pay for boarding schools that severed their children’s ties to their families and cultures. By the 1920s, so many Native American boarding schools had been created that nearly 83 percent of school-age Indigenous children were enrolled in such institutions.

Meanwhile, back at the schools, an “outing” program was an arrangement by which children worked as manual laborers or maids in surrounding farms, or at businesses like wagon makers, and the money earned went to the system, not to the individual children. That some parents managed to cleverly negotiate their way through the system and keep families relatively intact is a testament to native strategy even at the family level. But it can be tricky even for historians to point this out because the same treacherous games will be played against them as have been played recently against African-Americans: let one Black historian point out that, despite the horrors of slavery in every aspect, there were some enslaved people who managed to not only survive, but, after Emancipation, to turn the few skills they had managed to acquire while enslaved into small businesses — becoming chefs, tailors, carpenters, etc. This now could now be used against them in claiming ahistorically, that “Hey, slavery must not have been so bad after all, see? It was an education, and now you have a trade!” In other words, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Examples taken at random from the New York Times series: James LaBelle, Inupiaq, eight years old in 1955, whose mother was given the choice of sending him to boarding school or putting him up for adoption. He was sent to a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian affairs in Southeast Alaska, where perceived violations of school rules required that children be whipped with a cat o’nine tails naked — by other children, and where sexual violence against girls and sodomizing little boys was repeated and commonplace. At the Intermountain Indian school in Brigham City, Utah, children were never allowed to question being made to work as part of their school experience. Anita Yellowhair, a Navajo survivor, said “It was just what you did, no questions asked. They hired me out on weekends to clean the homes of white families.” Child labor largely constructed the entire Sherman Institute in Southern California in 1902. At Utah’s Intermountain School, if female students were caught speaking languages other than English, they were made to kneel and clean the toilets and beaten regularly.

Malnutrition was normal and outbreaks like measles were common, but although parents from surrounding reservations quickly assembled to try to take their children home, children died, filling the cemeteries. In a city park north of downtown Albuquerque, workers digging irrigation trenches in the 1970s found children’s bones. The site had been the cemetery of the Albuquerque Indian School. Many Indian boarding institutions changed names, locations, or operators over time, making them more difficult to trace, a practice analogous to that of the Roman Catholic Church moving sexually abusive priests from parish to parish, where they can continue to commit the same crimes against children, safe from discovery and accountability.

A recent new accounting, the Times reports, shows that at least 523 institutions were part of the sprawling network of boarding schools for native children. At least 408 received federal funding.

An initial report on the federal boarding school system released by the Interior Department last year, cited more than 50 school sites known to contain burial grounds. (That’s not a coincidence. This is the first time in history that a Native person has ever been the cabinet member in charge of the Department of the Interior — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is from the Laguna Pueblo people.) The report shows that Congress had enacted laws to coerce parents to send their children to the schools, including authorizing Interior Department officials to withhold treaty-guaranteed food rations to families; Congress had also funded schools through annual appropriations and with money from the sale of lands held by tribes. And then, in addition, the government hired Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Congregationalist associations to run schools, regardless of whether they had experience in education, and paid them an amount for each student. Smaller congregations, like the Quakers, had schools of their own.

In recent years, tribal nations around the US have begun using technologies like remote-sensing surveys and ground-penetrating radar to locate evidence of burial sites. In July, the Paiute Nation confirmed 12 children’s bodies, buried in unmarked graves at the site of the Panguitch Indian Boarding School in southern Utah. At least 86 students are thought to have died at the Genoa Indian Industrial School in Nebraska, about 90 miles west of Omaha, from causes including typhoid, tuberculosis, and “a shooting.”

Nevertheless, in general, as Thomas J. Morgan, the commissioner of Indian affairs said openly in 1891, “it was cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.”

This blog will be on hiatus next week