The road after Indian Residential Schools: A part of U.S History

A photo of Native American children at a Residential School. Source: Texas Beyond History


The following article includes discussion of the physical and sexual abuse of children

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was the motto used to justify the existence of Native American Boarding schools in the late nineteenth-century United States. Their establishment separated from their families, which forced them to cut ties with their cultural identity. Ultimately, the forced assimilation of Native American children into European-American society not only contributed to a loss of culture, but even resulted in many deaths.

Established in the late 1800s, boarding schools were a government attempt at indoctrination of Native children into the dominant Western culture. According to PBS, the first boarding school that was federally run for young Native Americans in the U.S was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which opened in 1879. According to NPR, there have been over 100 different Native American boarding schools run by the government. Today, there are still a few of these schools running, although assimilation and integration are no longer their objectives.

Indian Boarding Schools operated in a manner where separations of children from their families either involved manipulation of guardians - often with the promise that their children would be given food and care - or forced removal by government officials.

In an interview with Paper Bridges, Albert Titman, a Native American counselor with tribal affiliations to the Nisenan, Miwok, Maidu, Mixeca, and Pit River peoples shared his father’s experience with home removal. Titman’s father was stolen from his home at five years old, put into a government vehicle and placed into a Catholic Boarding School, located at the other side of Yosemite.

“And while he was there, from the age of five years old, you know, he was ethnically cleansed.” Titman said. He added that one of his grandmothers and grandfathers had also been brought up in a Boarding School in Riverside, CA.

For some families, generation after generation of children were taken. Titman shared about underground ceremonial houses that the community used to hide children from the government. His father would remain in the system until he was twelve years old.

Thomas Moore, a First Nations boy who attended Regina Industrial School. Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A8223 (1)-(2)

Boarding schools imposed rigid expectations on children upon arrival. In efforts to “civilize” them, they were forced to lose any ties to their culture, stripping them of any traditional clothes, and cutting their hair short, which is often kept long in several tribes. In addition, they were forbidden from speaking in their native languages and forced to speak only English. It wasn’t uncommon for children to be beaten if they were caught speaking their native language.

“He was sexually abused. They're physically abused. You know, given cod liver oil for speaking your language,” Titman said, referring to his father.

Titman’s father wasn’t alone: physical and sexual abuse was rampant in these institutions. Malnourishment was a severe issue, and for certain periods of time, so were disease outbreaks. Contact with family members was also limited. Out of sheer desperation, many children over the years would try to run away to find their way back home, risking punishment if caught. Albert Titman’s father attempted this but was caught on what would have been a 100-mile journey. He was beaten and sent to a reformatory school, later joining the military to escape the abuse. Disillusioned with American institutions, Titman’s father was ultimately dishonorably discharged because he was tired of fighting for a country that didn’t fight for him.

A Native American family missing their child. Source: Artwork by Christiane Alvarez

Parents were not informed of their children’s wellbeing. Many of these schools had unmarked graves and in some cases, parents would only hear updates about their child after they had passed away. Even now, families are still looking for the remains of their young loved ones at these schools, searching for answers among unmarked tombstones.

The effect of these institutions and the century-long impact that they had on Native American families have manifested through generational trauma. The term “generational trauma” refers to a type of trauma that transfers from parent to child as a result of traumatic events in the life of a parent. As adults, many Natives who grew up attending boarding school were not given the tools to process their abuse and passed their trauma to their families. Trauma can manifest in a number of ways, often through drug or alcohol abuse.

Today, Titman is a counselor, channeling his experiences to help others. “I feel like there are these two questions that we're told we need to ask ourselves.” He said. “And when we can answer them, you know, then we move to the next phase of life. The first one is ‘Who am I?’ … ‘and then purpose.’”

A depiction of U.S Propaganda directed towards Native American children while at the boarding schools. Source: Artwork by Christiane Alvarez

In response to the extensive trauma experienced through the Boarding Schools, particularly, trauma inflicted by the U.S government, elected officials have taken a stance for more to be done addressing the harm from these schools. Former Representative Deb Haaland proposed H.R.8420. Its aim was to essentially create a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy, compiling records and accounts of those affected, as well as assess the continuous effects of the Boarding Schools. In addition, the Act also takes into consideration the effects of Native children being removed from their Natives homes and communities through social service and foster care agencies today.

Dr. Brian Baker, a Professor at California State University, Sacramento, is from the Bad River LaPointe Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He spoke with Paper Bridges about the role educational institutions today have in teaching about America’s history of Indian Boarding Schools. Dr. Baker stressed the importance of teaching these difficult histories so that students can understand.

“Many students are just quite often just shocked about the design of these institutions, their powerful colonial effects on Native people,” Dr. Baker said. “[This history] should also be addressed outside of the institution.”

Dr. Baker covered aspects of how Native children were dehumanized. “ When these children first go to these schools, their names are arbitrarily changed.” He stated. “And then it's just a very powerful thing, when you really, really think about it, because then I ask students, how would you feel on your first day of school where your name was just arbitrarily changed? Where you point to a name on a Blackboard or something? You know, because at another level, naming for Natives is a very powerful thing.”

Ultimately, the Native American story isn’t just one of trauma and tragedy. These stories spell out the strength and resilience of the Native American people. “The trauma doesn't define us, because handed down with the trauma is also the beauty of who we are as native people, where those things aren't gone, they're not lost, we just have to research them,” Titman said.

“ Culture means survival. So, where the historical trauma and the intergenerational trauma meets, there's intergenerational healing. There's generational resilience.”

Works Cited

  1. Pember, Mary Annette. “Death by Civilization.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 8, 2019.

  1. Bear, Charla. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.” NPR. NPR, May 12, 2008.

  1. Elliott , Sarah. “Understanding the Origin of American Indian Boarding Schools.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, April 13, 2020.

  1. Estes, Nick, and Alleen Brown. “Where Are the Indigenous Children Who Never Came Home?” High Country News – Know the West, September 25, 2018.

  1. Estes , Nick. “The U.S. Stole Generations of Indigenous Children to Open the West.” High Country News – Know the West, October 14, 2019.

  1. Blad, Evie. “Bill Addresses Cultural Genocide Caused by Indian Boarding Schools.” Education Week. Education Week, October 1, 2020.

  1. Bombay, Amy, Kimberly Matheson, and Hymie Anisman. “The Intergenerational Effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the Concept of Historical Trauma.” The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: Implications for the concept of historical trauma. SAGE Publications, June 2014.

  1. Pember, Mary Annette. “Intergenerational Trauma: Understanding Natives' Inherited Pain.” Indian Country Today Media Network, 2016.

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