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Key Issues and Challenges


Federal Indian policy makers in the late 1800s and early 1900s sought to use the schoolhouse-specifically the boarding schools-as an instrument for acculturating Indian youth to "American" ways of thinking and living. Only by removing Indian children from their homes for extended periods of time, policy makers reasoned, could white "civilization" take root while childhood memories of "savagism" gradually fade to the point of extinction. [source]

Academically, the schools and its teachers were marginal. Where available, documentation consistently shows that, at best, only half the "school" day was spent in academic instruction. The rest of the time was spent in religious indoctrination (which was regarded as the primary "academic" task by school officials) and hard labour (which in various ways was used to offset the costs of school operation). The children's time was carefully monitored: recreational time, or time spent on one's own, was negligible. [source]

The Carlisle School was the first major non-reservation boarding school for the American Indian. The government set it up in an abandoned military barracks in Carlisle, PA, in 1879 with 139 students from the Rosebud, Pine Ridge and other reservations by Army officer Richard Henry Pratt.

After leaving the military Pratt took several Indians to Hampton, a school for the education of the Negro. Not being in entire sympathy with the uniting of the Indian and Negro problems, Captain Pratt suggested he be given the Carlisle Barracks, an abandoned military post in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His request was granted and in September, 1879, the Carlisle Indian School was authorized. The school opened November 2, 1879.

The school was to be a model for education of the American Indian as it mission proclaimed, "To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him in civilization, let him stay." Pratt was often heard to say "Kill the Indian - Save the man".

Students were given new "civilized" names and uniforms. Their hair was shorn, their heads washed with kerosene and their bodies with lye. Discipline was strict, basic reading and writing were held in the mornings, agricultural or trade instruction was in the afternoons. The girls received domestic arts training. Students were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice tribal religions.

The school graduated its students half way between the Grammar and High School grades of the public schools. The plan was to teach the pupils some industry at the same time their literary education supposedly moved forward. Shops for mechanical instruction of the boys were established and opportunities were provided to teach girls the industries peculiar to their sex. [source]

Residential schools were also established in Canada

Residential Schools were one of many attempts at the genocide of the Aboriginal Peoples inhabiting the area now commonly called Canada. Initially, the goal of obliterating these peoples was connected with stealing what they owned (the land, the sky, the waters, and their lives, and all that these encompassed); and although this connection persists, present-day acts and policies of genocide are also connected with the hypocritical, legal, and self-delusional need on the part of the perpetrators to conceal what they did and what they continue to do. A variety of rationalisations (social, legal, religious, political, and economic) arose to engage (in one way or another) all segments of Euro-Canadian society in the task of genocide. For example, some were told (and told themselves) that their actions arose out of a Missionary Imperative to bring the benefits of the One True Belief to savage pagans; others considered themselves justified in land theft by declaring that the Aboriginal Peoples were not putting the land to "proper" use; and so on. The creation of Indian Residential Schools followed a time-tested method of obliterating indigenous cultures, and the psychosocial consequences these schools would have on Aboriginal Peoples were well understood at the time of their formation. Present-day symptomology found in Aboriginal Peoples and societies does not constitute a distinct psychological condition, but is the well known and long-studied response of human beings living under conditions of severe and prolonged oppression. Although there is no doubt that individuals who attended Residential Schools suffered, and continue to suffer, from the effects of their experiences, the tactic of pathologising these individuals, studying their condition, and offering "therapy" to them and their communities must be seen as another rhetorical maneuver designed to obscure (to the world at large, to Aboriginal Peoples, and to Canadians themselves) the moral and financial accountability of Euro-Canadian society in a continuing record of Crimes Against Humanity. [source]


"I know I ran away from the Mission at least four times, four to six times during the one year I was there. After each time I was confined to the dorm until the sisters came and took me to the classroom. And privileges were taken away like going for walks or being allowed to buy things if you had the money from the school store where they had a little concession. However, I do know that Father had a three inch by probably five foot strap in his office that was called "Black Mike" and some of the children had this used on them as punishment." 

Interview with Jeannie Jerred, Colville Confederated Tribes, February 21, 1997. Interview recorded by Jennifer Ferguson. [source]

"Sometimes the steady routine and strict discipline...became irksome and they (the children) would run away. Afoot and flat broke, but happy to be headed for home, no matter how far away their homes were. ...before they reached their homes, (the Indian Police) were sure to be waiting patiently for them and in a very short time the unhappy children would be on their way back to school.... At the end of the trail the weary youngster would be placed in the guard house where he could have a few days to meditate on...whether "it paid or not". Dan Sherwood, Sam Brown, Tom Flett and Jerome Pascal were the policeman."

Frances LeBret [source]

"I told my parents that I did not want to go back. I didn't like it there. I ran away quite often and only because my father threatened to spank me every step and make me walk all the way back if I did it again and Father threatened me with "Black Mike" that I stayed for the remaining probably three months of the school year. I told them I didn't want to return and a lot of that was due to the experience's I had there. 

Interview with Jeannie Jerred, Colville Confederated Tribes, February 21, 1997. Interview recorded by Jennifer Ferguson [source]

Testimony--The Schools

"With the three C's, you can easily look at Conquering, Civilizing, and Christianizing. It changes a people! I think the Bureau (of Indian Affairs) schools did just that! They totally changed a people in just a real short period of time. I'm not saying that we didn't need schools, the need was there. I needed a roof over my head. I needed an education. There were many children in my family at that time - with my mother working at ninety-cents and hour to feed me and my brothers and sisters and to provide for us and our needs. The Bureau Schools did that but it's all the other things that they did was so devastating and so traumatic. There was no need to put our people through all the abuses that they put us through. Other than having the philosophy that their way was better than ours. They could have accomplished the best of both worlds. They could have provided the Indian way and provided us with more education without putting us through traumatic differences." 

Oral interview of Darlene "Doll" Watt. Jennifer Ferguson, interviewer. February 21, 1997, Inchelium, Washington. [source]

"My brother that died was just a year older than me when he was killed. It was just two months before I went to Chilocco. So, when I got to Chilocco a lot of the kids were asking about my brother that was killed. I was feeling a lot of grief and sorrow but the initial feeling was fear. I was scared. I didn't have any idea what they expected. I didn't have any idea how bit it was going to be and I was overwhelmed! There was one thousand two hundred fifty Indian kids from all over the United States." 

Oral interview of Darlene "Doll" Watt. Jennifer Ferguson, interviewer. February 21, 1997, Inchelium, Washington. [source]

"If everybody knew part of their language or even spoke any Indian terms you would be spanked for it...You were brought in front of everybody and ...when you lined up in the morning before you go to breakfast they would call you out, they would have you pull your pants down, grab your ankles and they would spank you in front of everybody so everybody could view it. And, if you pulled your hands loose you got it again. "The Black Mike" was a little more hidden but that there you went into the priest's office. Black Mike was a whip and we had to go through the same drill, grab your ankles! And he'd whip you probably three times and if you pulled your hands away from your ankles at any time during that time you got another one," 

Virgil "Smoker" Marchand in an interview with Jennifer Mason-Ferguson, February 28, 1997. [source]

"There was the sewing room where many of the girls received their first lessons in sewing. Where everything even straight seams were carefully basted, and made as nearly perfect as possible by dint of ripping and rebasting to the satisfaction of the seamstress in charge." 

Frances LeBret [source]

"The boys played baseball, broad jumping and ran foot races, played mumbley peg and marbles, spin the top and a lot of other things for entertainment. They were allowed more liberty than were the girls, consequently got into much more mischief which often led to...punishment. The punishment often being a large handful of switches laid, by the strong arm of out school superintendent, onto bare backs." 

Frances LeBret [source]

Right off, Sister Mary Leonard began to explain that speaking Mi'kmaw was not permitted in the school ... I found myself serving Father Mackey a three-course meal...but I never did get to eat off the fancy dishes or taste the gourmet meals that the priest enjoyed ...Our home clothes were stripped off and we were put in the tub. When we got out we were given new clothes with wide black and white vertical stripes. Much later I discovered that this was almost identical to the prison garb of the time. We were also given numbers. I was 58 and Rosie was 57. Our clothes were all marked in black India ink--our blouses, skirts, socks, underwear, towels, face-cloths--everything except the bedding had our marks on it. Next came the hair cut ... Sometimes the little girls would get thirsty during the night and go to the bathroom for a drink of water. If they were caught, they were dragged out of the room by the hair or ear and sent back to bed ... Even those of us with families who lived nearby were sometimes not permitted to go home for Christmas. But it was the one day in the school year when we were allowed to be with our brothers and sisters ...We played with our toys all during vacation until Little Christmas, January 6th, when school resumed and the toys would be gathered up and packed in boxes under the tables or locked in the cloak room. Sometimes, we never saw the toys again but our dolls would be hung on nails on the walls of the recreation hall. One day, coming down from the class we found an empty space where the dolls had been... Nothing more wa  said about the dolls until next Christmas and the process was repeated again for another year and after that another year and on and on for forty years to hundreds of Indian children. On the boys' side the identical ritual was performed, only with gun holsters, cowboy hats, and hockey sticks.

Isabelle Knockwood [source]

Cultural Genocide--A Challenge from a Canadian Report on Indian Boarding Schools

The malignancy that was Indian Residential Schooling neither emerged at the time the schools were created, nor was excised at the time they were decommissioned. "Limited" education had been a policy of European religious institutions long before Columbus, the tactic serving in earlier eras to establish and maintain the within-society colonisation known as class through obfuscations such as the "doctrines" of Innate Depravity, Original Sin, and the Divine Right of Kings, and the promise of "something better" in the "next" world.122 This long history of the use of education as a weapon of oppression has largely been concealed, and though sometimes barbed with religion, sometimes predominantly secular, the weapon was, as was the case with Indian Residential Schooling, generally fashioned cooperatively by church and state. This "moralistic camouflage" has served both to isolate historically the aims and achievements of Indian Residential Schooling (thus contributing to its systematic misunderstanding), and to prevent the various victims of this strategy from comparing notes and making common cause. [source]

Considerations of discipline and punishment aside, Residential Schools tended to be harsh environments. Many have recalled how underheated the school buildings were, how cold the floors were in winter, how oppressive were the barracks-style living arrangements. Many former students report how they were chronically underfed, or provided with food unfit for consumption. Some were driven by hunger to obtain food by creative means (we refuse to use the word "steal" to describe a child's actions under such circumstances). This led to one kind of consequence if caught (harsh discipline), and another if not (guilt for "stealing," or for having more food than another child).

Often, the climate of Indian Residential Schools alternated between being emotionally overwhelming (on one extreme) and emotionally barren (on the other). Many have testified ... that they did not feel safe, or loved, or cared for; that they were or felt they were exposed to the predations of school staff or older, stronger students; that no one was there who was there for them. Children vied for the positive attentions of their custodians, who played favourites and set the children against one another with extra food, privileges and other inducements. The potential for emotional devastation was built into the Residential Schools in terms of such regular features as: initial separation from parents and family; prolonged isolation from parents, family, and people; the period of adjustment to institutional rules; and the constant fault-finding and racial slurs addressed to them by staff.

Even those who managed to escape the more sensational abuses of Residential Schools could not have emerged unscathed:

All students recalled the homesickness, the loneliness, the aloneness, the lack of family contact, the unfamiliarity of the new environment, the lack of personal freedom, the "cold" atmosphere, or lack of feeling in the institution, the "distance" (social distance) placed between educators and Native children, and the fear--initially of the unknown, but later the fear that developed and that was instilled in their hearts and minds as little children.

Residential Schools implemented a well-established technology that targeted the spirits, minds, feelings, and bodies of its wards. Its goal was not so much to create as to destroy; its product was designed, as far as possible, to be something not quite a person: something that would offer no intellectual or spiritual challenge to its oppressors, that might provide some limited service to its "masters" (should the "masters" desire it), and that would learn its place on the margins of ... society. [source]

We are certainly far from the first to assert that Canada's treatment of Aboriginal Peoples in general, and its creation and operation of Residential Schools in particular, was and continues to be nothing short of genocide.... Genocide does not require killing.


Assimilation is genocide....About this point there has been and will continue to be controversy. The draft United Nations Genocide Convention proposals included an explicit statement proscribing cultural genocide (destruction of the specific characteristics of a group) as well as biological genocide (restricting births, sterilisation) and physical genocide (killing, whether quickly as by mass murder, or slowly as by economic strangulation). This proposal was immediately resisted by the United States (whose politicians were concerned that U.S. treatment of minorities would be in violation of such injunctions), and their efforts to derail those provisions were supported by Canada....

The education of native children in day and residential schools was one of the key elements in Canada's Indian policy from its inception. The destruction of the children's link to their ancestral culture and their assimilation into the dominant society were its main objectives....

[First], we consider forcing the members of a group to abandon their form of life to be, by definition, inflicting serious mental harm on members of a group; whether or not the "forcing" is accomplished by starvation, beatings, or other physical means is completely irrelevant.

Second, the dualistic separation of a culture from its biological carriers is an implicit racialism of a kind the United Nations has itself rejected. It takes culture as a kind of add-on to the real object of concern, the biological person. But how are we to conceive of a person without a culture, or a culture that is peopleless?

[. . . .]

Residential Schools involved a forced transfer of children from their parents to the designates of the State, the explicit form of cultural genocide covered by the UN Convention.

[. . . .]

Even the phrase "cultural genocide" is an unnecessary ellipsis: cultural genocide is genocide. Finally, in any intellectually honest appraisal, Indian Residential Schools were genocide. [source

The intent of the government of Canada in these activities is clear from any number of public statements, such as the one below:

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department and that is the whole object of this Bill.

compiled from THE CIRCLE GAME: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada: A Report to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Submitted October, 1994 Roland D. Chrisjohn, Ph. D. & Sherri L. Young, M. A. with contributions by Michael Maraun, Ph. D. Copyright, Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young, January, 1995.

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