June 02, 2022

I saw an article in my local newspaper reprinted from an AP story addressing the thousands of unmarked graves associated with Indigenous boarding schools in the US.  A federal study of Indigenous boarding schools has identified more than 500 student deaths and officials expect that to grow exponentially.  The Interior Department report identified more than 400 schools that were established or supported by the US government, starting in the early 19th century, and continuing in some cases until the late 1960’s.  The identified deaths represent records for about 20 of the schools.  Many children just never returned home, and the Interior Department said with further investigation the number of student deaths could climb to the thousands or tens of thousands.  Causes include disease, accidental injuries, and abuse.  Accounting for the deaths will be difficult as records were not always kept.  A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government’s financial investment in the schools and the impact of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities.  The Interior Department has so far identified at least 53 burial sites at or near boarding schools, not all of which have marked graves.

When I went online, I found the primary objective of these schools was “civilizing” or assimilating Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture.  In the process, these schools denigrated Native American culture and made children give up their languages and religion in the effort to replace it with a basic Western education.  Children were immersed in European-American culture and forced removal of indigenous cultural signifiers like cutting children’s hair, wearing American-style uniforms, forbidding the use of indigenous languages, and replacing tribal names with the English names used at the schools.  This was part of an effort to assimilate and “Christianize” the children.  The schools were usually harsh, and especially for younger children who were forcibly separated from their families and made to abandon their Native American identity and culture.  Investigations during the later twentieth century revealed many documented cases of sexual, manual, physical, and mental abuse occurring mostly in church-run schools.  Investigations are now increasing across the US. 

Since the 1970’s, tribal nations have carried out political activism and gained legislation and federal policy that gives them the power to decide how to use federal education funds, how they educate their children, and the authority to establish their own community-based schools.  Tribes have also founded numerous tribal colleges, and universities on reservations.  Tribal control over their schools has been supported by federal legislation and changing practices by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  By 2007, most of the schools had been closed and the number of Indigenous children in boarding schools had declined to 9,500.  While the Native American Boarding School era has ended, the US government still operates off-reservation boarding schools.  As of 2020, seven boarding schools continue to be federally funded, three of which are controlled by Indigenous community leaders.  Native youth still face challenges within the education system and rarely have access to curriculums that are culturally relevant to them.

THOUGHTS:  I have interacted with two Indigenous schools as an adult.  The first was playing football against what is now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, in the mid-1970’s.  This was a boarding school prior to becoming Haskell Indian Junior College in 1967.  By the late 1980’s Haskell had developed into a four-year, bachelor’s degree university.  I later received an advanced degree from a school cooperating with Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  Bacone began as Indian University in 1885 as a mission school.  After restructuring in 2018-2019, the tribal nations in Oklahoma collaborated to take control of the college as a consortium and revive the school’s history as a tribal college established for Indian education.  During the 1970’s I heard rumors about the “cheaters” we faced.  In the 2000’s I interacted with fellow students and educators.  I like to hope this is a fundamental change in the perception of society and how we treat “others”.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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