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Indian industrial and boarding schools - Part 2

Mountain Stewards
Children sit outside the first established Indian industrial school in Carlisle, Pa., converted from an old Army barracks, circa 1900.

By Don and Diane Wells
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series; Part 1 appeared in the January 2014 edition of Smoke Signals and can be found here online.

The dichotomy between how Indian children and European settlers’ children were taught can be likened to the contrast between night and day. And the difference between those two cultures was diametrically opposite.

Native American culture is based on living in harmony with the earth. Every living thing has a purpose and is to be respected. Respect for the earth, for its people and, in particular, respect for the elders is what every Indian is taught at an early age.

In the Indian culture, the elders are the keepers of history, and they teach by word-of-mouth to all descendant generations. Every Indian child was taught how to live off the land: how to raise food through simple, agricultural principles; how to use plants for medicine; and how to make everything they needed to survive.

The children of the European settlers were taught just the opposite. From an early age, they learned the three “Rs”—Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Like their parents, they were instructed getting ahead meant owning land, so they based their whole existence on preparing themselves for this outcome.

The attitude of the European settlers was based mostly on the “Doctrine of Discovery” or “Manifest Destiny,” which was the belief Christians emigrating from European countries were destined by God to expand across the North American continent. They believed their ways of living and learning to be superior to those of American Indians.

Thus, this clash of cultural differences gave way to the Indians being forced to assimilate into the white culture. Eduardo and Bonnie Duran, authors of “Native American Postcolonial Psychology,” stated, “Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. government implemented policies whose effect was the systematic destruction of the Native American family system under the guise of educating Native Americans in order to assimilate them as painlessly as possible into Western society, while at the same time inflicting a wound to the soul of Native American people that is felt in agonizing proportions to this day.” In fact, this systematic destruction began in the early 1800s, when missionaries began setting up schools in Indian territories to “convert” Indian children to a “Christian” way of life.

In Part 1 of this series (January 2014), we briefly discussed the efforts of Richard Henry Pratt, who began the first Indian industrial/boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., with the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and backing from wealthy white benefactors. Pratt overcame some early startup difficulties and went on to convince the U.S. government to support his ideas for assimilating Indian children into white culture.

In the decade following the start of the Carlisle School in 1879, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1882 to authorize monies to build Indian schools across the country. When some refused to allow their children to be taken to these schools, Congress, in 1893, authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withhold food rations and supplies from American Indian parents or guardians.

Some Indian families taught their children the “hide-and-seek game” to avoid being taken forcibly to the government schools. In 1895, 19 Hopi Indian parents were incarcerated at the United States Military Prison on Alcatraz Island rather than giving up their children to boarding school agents. By early 1900, there were more than 25,000 Indian children enrolled in 25 federally funded schools far from the reservations from which they were taken.

Had this federally mandated education of Indian children been focused on academics, it might have been more acceptable. However, little time was spent on academic education. Most of their education involved learning manual labor techniques, such as farming, housekeeping and carpentry—skills that would be helpful to the white community.

There are many written accounts from those who attended these schools that will make most ashamed this occurred in the United States. In general, each Indian child either was removed forcibly from his parents, or the parents reluctantly agreed to allow their children to go in order to avoid having their food allotments withheld.

The children were taken by whatever mode of transportation was available to the school. Travel took days in many cases. The children, who only spoke their native language, did not understand their English-speaking leaders and were very afraid. When they arrived at the schools, the children most often were stripped of their Indian native dress and disinfected with alcohol, kerosene or DDT. This disinfection process was painful and very frightening to the children. They were scrubbed with rough brushes and dressed in matching school uniforms.

To an Indian child, their long, black hair had spiritual significance. However, the schools cut it off as a way of starting to separate them from their culture. All personal belongings were taken away; anything that connected them to their family or tribe was destroyed. In most cases, the school administrators renamed the children, giving them English names they did not understand. In some cases, they were given only a number. To any child who suffered this treatment, it must have been the most horrifying experience imaginable—an experience that has proven to have lasting psychological effects even today.

Throughout their time at the schools, children were not allowed to speak their language or practice their tribal customs. Jerry Wolfe, beloved elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) told us he was beaten with a belt if he was caught speaking his language.

Lula Owle, also of the EBCI, said you could not cry at the school. You had to go to a tree at the far end of the campus, which was the crying tree. When you finished crying, you could come back and join the others.

Many of these schools continued to exist well up into the 1930s. Some, however, became real schools to educate Indian children and a few of them still exist today.

Next month, we will write about the atrocities inflicted on the Indian children at these schools.

Mountain Stewards Feb 2014: Children sit outside the first established Indian industrial school in Carlisle, Pa., converted from an old Army barracks, circa 1900.

 

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