With the 215 remains of Indigenous children recently uncovered in a mass grave at a residential school in “Canada,” collective Indigenous rage has been sparked to address the brutal legacy of colonial schools.
In the late 1800’s, U.S. policy against Indigenous Peoples shifted from outright annihilation to forced assimilation. In 1885, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price stated “…it is cheaper to give them education than to fight them.” Another colonial politician named Carl Schurz clarified the economics behind the strategy stating that, “…it would cost a million dollars to kill an Indian in warfare, whereas it cost only $1,200 to school an Indian child for eight years.”
As part of the shift in strategy, army General Richard Pratt created the first government-funded off-reservation boarding school with the mission to, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Pratt and other colonizers at the time were clear that this was a project of civilization, “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” The white supremacist colonial school system was explicitly designed to violently impose Christian and capitalist values to produce “productive” members of the colonial social order.
These violent military and Christian institutions of separation, forced assimilation, and extreme physical and sexual abuse were so effective, the strategy was replicated by other colonial forces, including so-called Canada.
Addressing the ongoing reality of forced assimilation through education in Indigenous communities is not new. Our communities have long been exploring ways to heal while calling for justice for all those who survived, and those who did not.
In 2007, after decades of advocacy for reparations in so-called Canada, a settlement was agreed upon in the largest class action settlement ever faced by the colonial government. The settlement included a $10,000 “common experience” payment to the approximately 90,000 people who survived residential schools with an additional $3,000 for every year they were held at the schools. Approximately $200 million was allocated for funding for healing and educational programs.
A group called the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, which has charged that the residential schools were responsible for the deaths and disappearances of nearly 50,000 Indigenous children, rejected the deal stating, “This bribe and legal gagging is being presented as a final ‘resolution’ of the claims of residential school survivors, as if such unspeakable crimes as mass sterilizations, gang rape, ritualistic torture and murder are resolvable by or reducible to an issue of money…”
We cannot address the brutal horrors of assimilation through forced education without facing how its colonial legacy continues to fulfill its vicious objectives.
The severe effects of boarding and residential schools on our communities continue to be felt today. With survivors from our parent’s generation still facing traumas that are largely unspoken. We are still in the process of realizing the severe harm that this strategy has caused our communities, particularly the ways the sacred roles of two-spirit and matriarchs were systematically attacked.
Although in 1978 Indigenous parents in the U.S. gained the legal right to prevent family separation, the colonial education system continues its strategy of cultural genocide.
The system that settler invaders designed to annihilate Indigenous knowledge and replace it with their own is still in operation. We used to be forced to go to the colonizers’ schools to learn their ways and participate in their project of “civilization.” Today we go willingly into its halls, sit in its classrooms and further our social status in the capitalist colonial order.
We have Indigenous academics who have fulfilled the dreams of colonizers such as Pratt. They continue to develop an elite managerial class within Indigenous communities that shapes and subdues our traditional knowledge systems, all while servicing colonial economic and political expansion. This is the curse of “Go My Son,” the infamous song written by Mormons to encourage auto-assimilation through neo-colonial education systems.
We also have Indigenous soldiers who represent the highest enlistment rate per ethnic group in the very military that sought our total destruction just one century ago. With economic and education incentives being a primary incentive for their voluntary service. They represent the fulfillment of the policy to “kill the Indian.” Though, the “Indians” they are really killing are our ancestors who gave their lives to prevent this future from unfolding.
In order to fulfill and maintain colonial domination and exploitation, colonizers shape and control the political identity of Indigenous Peoples. This occurs through all forms of social, economic and political engagement; from schools and casinos to health service facilities, from Tribal councils.
The powerful Black militant Assata Shakur wrote in her autobiography, “The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”
Yet while facing this genocidal colonial legacy, we hear renewed calls for acknowledgments and apologies, for “honoring treaties” and “better” history lessons, or for reconciliation.
These measures do not directly challenge the underlying power relations that uphold settler colonialism. As an example, if we examine many of the treaties that some are calling to be “honored,” we quickly realize that many contain education provisions for “civilizing” Indigenous Peoples.
Not only does the Diné (Navajo) treaty of 1868 codify cis-heteropatriarchy, compulsory education by white colonizers was a specific condition. Article 6 states, “In order to ensure the civilization of the Indians entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted…they therefore pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school;…” Diné agreed to send their children to attend colonial schools for a period of ten years, while the government agreed to provide one teacher per thirty students.
The treaty “right” of education was designed to attack Indigenous knowledge systems.
Although the program of brutal forced assimilation was ended, Bureau of Indian Education still “educates” more than 40,000 students in 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states with the same core objectives. According to the Boarding School Healing Coalition, out of the 367 boarding schools in the so-called US, 73 remain open today with 15 of them still functioning as boarding schools. In December 2004, an Indigenous student was found deceased in a holding cell at one of these contemporary boarding schools: the Chemawa Boarding School in so-called Oregon. The student was placed in the cell due to intoxication and was supposed to be checked on every fifteen minutes, but she was found unresponsive three hours later. The U.S. Attorney declined to charge the staff with involuntary manslaughter.
A war against Indigenous children is an ongoing war against an Indigenous future.
When we understand the context of colonial violence and how it is transmitted through generations in cascading violence, we begin to understand that this ongoing historic attack against Indigenous children may also be part of why Indigenous youth have such high suicide rates. Indigenous youth are the collateral damage of colonial history. But they have also have a powerful history of refusal and resistance.
Many Indigenous children resisted and rejected settler colonial “civilization” imposed at boarding and residential schools. They ran away and resisted the authoritarianism, economic and social stability that we so willingly participate in today. Our communities have incredible stories of fierce children who conspired and successfully liberated themselves and others, with some traveling hundreds of miles back to their homes. There were also those who stayed, mostly older ones, who protected and comforted those who were younger.
While the U.S. government used food as a weapon by withholding rations for families who refused to send their children willingly, parents were also threatened with imprisonment.
As an act of defiance to sending their children to boarding schools and in resistance to farming as white invaders told them to, 19 Hopi men deemed “Hostiles,” surrendered to the U.S. military to be imprisoned at the infamous Alcatraz prison. They were to be “held in confinement, at hard labor, until … they shall show … they fully realize the error of their evil ways … [and] until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.”
Boarding schools forced us to abandon our cultures, our language, our names, our ceremonies, our hair. The strategy of compulsory colonial education was to destroy that which makes us who we are. To break the connection we have to the land, spirit, and our ancestors. So it is our responsibility to radically reconnect. By design we cannot reconnect through the colonizer’s ballot box, political offices, corporate jobs, academic degrees, or non-profit activism.
Colonization is war, this means that there is nothing to negotiate in the fight for an Indigenous future. Anti-colonial struggle means that in our fighting back, we are also healing. This is a celebration and honoring of Indigenous knowledge and rage.
When we reject the ideas and values that were beaten into us and restore what was beaten out. When we reject and destroy the ideas and institutions that maintain settler domination and control and rebuild mutuality based on cultural knowledge and ways of living. We reconnect.
We do this through ceremony, through renaming, through language immersion, through our hair, through our foods and medicines, through our songs and games, through shutting down pipelines and corporate offices, through protecting sacred places, through disrupting, intervening, and attacking that which destroys us.
We hear our militant anti-colonial relations in so-called Canada when they express their powerful rage, “Reconciliation is dead. Awareness of the issue isn’t the problem. We want vengeance.”
Avenge the 215. Avenge those buried at Haskell and Phoenix Indian School and all boarding and residential schools. We dream of Indigenous futures rising from the ashes of all colonial institutions. We dream of our ancestors, avenged.
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“Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928” Adams, David Wallace.
“Kill the Indian, Save the Child: Cultural Genocide and the Boarding School,” Barker, Debra. www.boardingschoolhealing.org/education/us-indian-boarding-school-history/
Cheaper Than Bullets: American Indian Boarding Schools and Assimilation Policy, 1890-1930
From Arizona to Alcatraz: Hopi prisoners on Alcatraz
Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study
Documentary: A Century of Genocide in the Americas: A Residential School Experience