National Opinions

Residential schools were a key tool in America’s long history of Native genocide

The recent discovery of unmarked mass graves of 1,300 Indigenous children buried in five former residential schools has forced Canada to come to grips with a legacy of cultural and physical genocide against Native people.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, 150,000 children were separated from their families, language and culture and placed in 150 government-funded residential schools. There, children were subjected to torture, trauma and death to “kill the Indian in the child.” Thousands of children died -- 4,100 according to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential schools, although the actual number may have been as high as 15,000. And we can only imagine the trauma these children experienced, including those who were forced to bury their classmates and build their coffins.

The disturbing news from Canada was a reminder that the United States maintained its own system of 367 Indian boarding schools from 1860 until 1978. The two countries’ systems were intertwined, with the United States providing a model that Canada would adopt and emulate.

Responding to events in Canada, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland -- the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position and a granddaughter of people forced into these boarding schools -- announced an investigation of residential schools. She noted that most Americans would be alarmed to learn that “the United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people.” But, she emphasized, “it is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.”

She is right. Just as America is being forced to address its legacy of enslavement, segregation and systemic racism, the nation must confront the genocide of Indigenous people -- who are rendered all but invisible in society -- and the role of settler colonialism in building the country. Native American genocide, like slavery, constitutes America’s original sin.

From the earliest colonial days, violently clearing the land of Indigenous people -- like slavery -- was critical to the formation of the country. And, as with slavery, Christianity played an instrumental role in advancing violence against Indigenous communities. Three papal edicts -- known together as the Doctrine of Discovery -- provided a religious justification for colonial conquest and exploitation of non-Christian people and paved the way for the West African slave trade, slavery and Indigenous genocide.

These beliefs permeated the Declaration of Independence, which referred to the original inhabitants of this land as “merciless Indian savages.” And with U.S. expansion came Native American dispossession, death, forced relocation and containment in reservations. In fact, it was public policy. In 1819, Congress enacted the Civilization Fund Act, which authorized the president “in every case where he shall judge improvement in the habits and condition of such Indians practicable” to “employ capable persons of good moral character” to introduce tribes to the “arts of civilization.” In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established to administer the fund, which paid Christian missionaries to “civilize” the Indians.

The creation of residential schools were part of the broader settler colonial project to exterminate Native American culture and separate them from the land through war and violence. The first government-run boarding school for Native American children was the Carlisle School, which opened in Pennsylvania in 1879 for the purpose of “civilizing” by forcibly assimilating the children into white society. Founded by a Civil War veteran, Gen. William Henry Platt, who was in charge of Native American prisoners of war, its mission was clear. “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” Platt said. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Of the 10,000 children who attended the Carlisle School until it closed in 1918, more than 180 died amid abuse, malnourishment and disease related to substandard living conditions. After 100 years, the bodies of 10 of these children were returned to their families in June 2021.

Nevertheless, Carlisle came to serve as a model for other residential schools. Employing Platt’s assimilationist and genocidal philosophy of eliminating Native American culture, these schools adhered to policies forcing children to speak, dress and behave according to white American values, focusing on individualism and materialism, private rather than communal property and the monogamous nuclear family structure. Boys received industrial training, while girls learned home life skills in regimented environments, suffering under living conditions the Native American Rights Fund described as “somewhere between dungeons and death camps” in a 2019 report.

Between one-third and 40% of the Indian boarding schools in the United States were operated by Christian denominations. Churches believed that “civilizing” and converting Indigenous people to Christianity was their only hope of salvation from a “dying” culture. Missionaries regarded Indigenous spirituality as witchcraft and Christianity as the only acceptable moral law for a civilized society.

But, in fact, the boarding school system is now recognized as a form of genocide designed to forcibly remove children from their homes and separate them from their families, culture, clothing and language. Their hair was cut in a humiliating manner. Sadistic missionaries punished them for speaking their native tongue by washing out their mouths with soap, lye and chlorine. They were neglected, denied food, beaten and raped, sometimes leading to death -- all for the sake of destroying Indigenous culture.

And their influence spread across the northern border. Nicholas Flood Davin, the architect of the Canadian residential school program, visited Indigenous boarding schools in the United States in 1879 and was impressed with what he saw, particularly with the Carlisle School and its solution to the “Indian problem” through an “aggressive civilization” policy that deconstructed Indigenous children.

“The experience of the United States is the same as our own as far as the adult Indian is concerned. Little can be done with him,” Davin wrote in his 1879 report to the Canadian government. “He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at (live)stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all. The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what little he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion (avoidance) to toil (work) is in no way combated (stopped).” In Canada, residential schooling was made compulsory for all First Nations children in 1920.

Most of the schools ceased operations by the mid-1970s, with the last one closing in the late 1990s. With the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007, Canada paid reparations to the survivors of residential schools and issued an apology.

Lawyers in Canada have requested the International Criminal Court investigate the Canadian government and the Vatican for alleged crimes against humanity. While the Canadian government identified 5,300 abusers, none have been charged under a federal law addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity. A few priests have faced sexual assault charges but not homicide. Out of more than 38,000 reports of abuse at the residential schools, there were fewer than 50 convictions.

The mass graves in Canada are a wakeup call for the United States to seize the opportunity and get on the right side of human rights. As a country with a long, unresolved and traumatic history of genocide and mass graves, of family separation and the erasure of children, America must heal itself by accounting for its past.

David A. Love is a faculty member in journalism and media studies at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, and a writer based in Philadelphia. He writes on race, politics and justice issues.

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