Unpack the history of Indigenous boarding schools.

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In recent weeks, the bodies of some 1,200 Indigenous children have been discovered in mass graves at residential schools in Canada (Star Democrat). The US announced that they would be executing a similar effort to search former boarding schools for bodies in light of the discovery (NYT).

Residential schools were administered by various Christian denominations and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were designed to force Indigenous children into assimilation by making them abandon their languages and cultures. Their hair was cut, their clothing was exchanged for uniforms, and they were banned from speaking their languages. These children were cut off from their families and often experienced physical and sexual abuse (The Atlantic). Many children disappeared entirely from these schools. The new discovery of unmarked graves offers a grim explanation.

The first boarding school for Indigenous children in the United States was established in 1860 and schools remained open until 1978. By the 1880s, there were 60 schools for 6200 students including day schools and boarding schools. In 1879, Col. Richard Henry Pratt established an off-reservation boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania under the premise that full assimilation would best be completed away from the reservation. His motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” and the schools sought to achieve that purpose by stripping Indigenous heritage entirely and replacing it with white culture. The schools also forced conversion to Christianity, and when parents resisted placement in the schools, rations were often denied to Indigenous communities (Native Partnership).

Canada established a similar network of schools with the mission to “kill the Indian in the child.” In the 1880s, the Canadian government began establishing residential schools and the 1920 Indian Act made it illegal for Indigenous children to attend any schools but these. Similar to the U.S., children were forced to cut their hair, wear uniforms, and were often identified by number. The children were physically and often sexually abused and suffered poor health. In 1907, it was reported that 24% of previously healthy children were dying in these schools. It is also important to note that this does not include children who died after being sent home due to illness. Anywhere from 47% to 75% of children died soon after returning home (Indigenous Foundations).

While Indigenous schools are often talked of as a thing of the past, they are a recent part of history. It wasn’t until the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act in the U.S. that Indigenous parents were granted the right to deny placement of their children in these schools (Native Partnership). In Canada, the last residential school did not close until 1996 (Indigenous Foundations).

In a previous issue, we covered inequities in the child welfare system (ARD). The boarding schools might be closed, but Indigenous children in Canada account for nearly half of the 30,000 children and youth that are in foster care in Canada (Imprint News). British Columbia did not end its controversial practice of “birth alerts,” which flagged at-risk mothers and disproportionately targeted Indigenous children, until 2019 (CBC).

On June 11, 2008 the Canadian government formally apologized for its involvement in the residential boarding school practice and in 2005, the Canadian government reached a settlement to compensate boarding school survivors as well as fund the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and form the Truth and Reconciliation Commision (Indigenous Foundations). In lieu of the recent discovery of children’s remains in Canada, Justin Trudeau made a public statement that Canadians are “horrified and ashamed” (PBS).

Although the U.S. interior secretary Deb Haaland has directed the government to take action in response to Canada’s discovery and investigate the boarding schools in the U.S. (The Guardian), the U.S. has not yet provided any form of reparations to boarding school survivors, nor issued a public apology. Although President Obama signed off on the Native American Apology Resolution in 2009, tribal citizens have stated that the quiet apology is a watered-down apology with no real public action (Indian Law). The Catholic Church also has not apologized for the genocide of Indigenous children (Washington Post).

The U.S. government and complicit churches must formally apologize for the systematic abuse of Indigenous children through boarding schools and offer reparations to survivors.

Key Takeaways

  • Boarding schools were established in the U.S. and Canada to assimilate Indigenous children. These schools stripped children of their language, clothes, and customs.

  • The schools perpetrated systematic abuse of Indigenous children for a hundred years. Many children were lost and recently their remains have been recovered in unmarked graves at former sites of residential schools.

  • Although Canada has publicly apologized for the abuse perpetuated by these schools and provided some compensation to survivors, the U.S. and the Catholic Church have not formally apologized or provided any form of reparations.

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