National Opinions

Thanksgiving can be a time for seeking further truths and building accountability

A reckoning about Indigenous peoples’ histories has been unfolding across the United States in the past few years. Many states and municipalities have begun to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of or in addition to Columbus Day. Some companies, universities and governments are also issuing statements to acknowledge that the land we take for granted was once the homelands of Indigenous peoples. And now most Americans know that the story of a harmonious first Thanksgiving is a dangerous myth. The truth of what Indigenous people suffered, and endured, is finally coming to light, due to tireless efforts by Indigenous people themselves.

What comes next? Perhaps we can use Native American Heritage Month (November) and especially Thanksgiving as a time for seeking further truths, building accountability and promoting reconciliation.

One of the most disturbing truths to surface recently is our nation’s history of ripping Indigenous children from their families and sending them to boarding schools.

It was a retired Army officer, Richard Henry Pratt, who established the first federally funded all-Indian boarding school in 1879 in Carlisle, Pa. Pratt became the darling of a nascent “Friends of the Indian” movement that was critical of and sought to end the U.S. government’s violent campaigns against Indigenous people.

As an alternative, these reformers promoted the idea of setting up boarding schools, primarily in the West. One settler advocate, famous author Harriet Beecher Stowe, asserted: “We have tried fighting and killing the Indians, and gained little by it. Might not the money now constantly spent on armies, forts and frontiers be better invested in educating young men [and women] who shall return and teach their people to live like civilized beings?” Friends of the Indian framed the assimilation of Indian children through boarding schools as a humanitarian solution to America’s “Indian problem.”

But “school” was a misnomer for the kind of institutions to which U.S. officials sent Indigenous children. They offered neither an elite prep school curriculum nor a viable public school education. Instead they trained children in menial occupations for half of each day (mostly domestic service for girls and farming and some trades for boys.) Most officials believed Indian people to be incapable of pursuing professional vocations or achieving full equality. They frequently compared Indian people to “children” who needed settlers to guide them.

Once trained, children performed most of the necessary labor to keep the school running or were sent to work in local settler households for part of each day and during the summers. Girls spent much of their days sewing, laundering and ironing school uniforms. Boys tended the fields from which meals were made. For all the benevolent rhetoric of assimilating Indian children to become absorbed into society, the schools taught the children instead to take their place at the margins of the American economy, to labor for and serve their colonial masters.

These “schools” were also violent and deadly places; no other modern-day schools included cemeteries, as the Tlingit elder Bob Sam pointed out at a conference at Carlisle in 2018.

Upon arrival, school personnel divested children of their clothing (often their finest traditional garb), forcibly disinfected them, cut their hair and issued them uniforms. Authorities often gave the children new “American” names. Following Pratt’s regime at Carlisle, schools organized children into military companies and required them to drill each day. Students rarely had enough to eat and diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and trachoma rampaged through overcrowded dormitories.

Authorities forbade children to speak their own languages or practice Indian religions; they were required to speak only English and to attend Christian religious services. Punishments were brutal. Survivors described having to run a gauntlet of other children who were ordered to beat them. Disciplinarians used corporal punishment and runaways who were caught were often put in solitary confinement.

This reality exposes the true purpose of the “schools”: eliminating Indians. Earlier campaigns of violence, forced removal and land dispossession had not vanquished Indian nations. Indian people, even though they had lost huge numbers, still asserted their sovereignty and their right to maintain their languages, cultures and religions. The persistence of Indigenous people vexed many settler Americans, who were not content to take over just 98 percent of the continent.

Separating children from their families, government authorities thought, would sever generational bonds that fostered Indian cultures and sovereignties. If parents were resistant, and they understandably were, the federal government often withheld rations, guaranteed by treaty to replace traditional forms of subsistence. Families had to choose between starvation or losing their children. On other occasions, the government dispatched troops or police to round up children for the schools.

Sadly, the United States was not the only nation to use Indigenous child removal to deal with the “problem” of Indigenous persistence. Canada and Australia followed similar policies for over a century. Scandinavian nations set up boarding schools for the Indigenous Sami people. Today, China is still using the technique against its Uyghur population.

It took years of pressure from Indigenous leaders, but Canada and Australia finally reckoned with their histories of Indigenous child removal, through the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2009-2016) and the Stolen Generations Inquiry in Australia (1995-1997). Both countries gathered testimony from thousands of Indigenous survivors; their accrued stories made it impossible to deny or whitewash the damage that the schools inflicted.

What would it take for the United States to confront and become accountable for America’s stolen generations and to seek healing and reconciliation?

Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as interior secretary. Her grandparents were stolen from their family at Laguna Pueblo. She has called for an investigation into the schools, particularly the deaths and burials of children. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., introduced a bipartisan bill for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian boarding schools, following years of advocacy by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

But while those efforts are long overdue and welcome, the cases of Canada and Australia show they have also been incomplete and not entirely satisfying to Indigenous people. For example, some gathering of testimonies has retraumatized survivors. And even as they expressed regret for past policies and practices, both Canada and Australia continued to remove Indigenous children from their families; Indigenous children there remain vastly overrepresented in their child welfare systems.

The national processes also struggled to engage everyday settlers (non-Indigenous people who are living on land taken from Indigenous people), who were free to ignore them.

Transforming our nation means embedding truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation efforts at all levels of society. That means recognizing that Indian boarding schools were carried out in the name of and to the benefit of settlers. Many non-Indians, especially White women, found employment in the schools. When the government proposed to close the Genoa Indian School in Nebraska in the early 1930s, townspeople organized a campaign to keep it open, because it employed 500 locals. Settler households also got cheap labor from the boarding schools. Even during the Great Depression, White families in the San Francisco Bay area could afford to hire young Indian women from Stewart Indian School in Nevada as domestic servants.

Settlers benefited in other, less tangible ways, too. In separating Indian families, the schools helped undermine tribal nations and their ongoing claims to land and resources.

Often, non-Indian residents continued to benefit from the boarding schools after they closed. After the Genoa school shut its doors, the state of Nebraska inherited it to use as a state mental hospital and then a prison farm. Soon it passed into the hands of the University of Nebraska, where I work. The university eventually razed many buildings and auctioned off the rest.

It has taken Americans a woefully long time to learn the truth of the horrors of the schools and to recognize how generations of non-Indians benefited from them. Taking responsibility for past injustices and working toward healing and reconciliation would help to right the wrongs of the past and make Thanksgiving into a transformative and meaningful holiday.

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