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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the U. S. government opened many schools for Indians or Native American children in order to introduce Euro-American standards (Harley, 1994).
This paper seeks to reflect on the events that led to the establishment of the schools, what life was at these schools and their effects on Indian populations, this is in regard to the larger context of the Native American Experience and propose mechanisms of dealing with the effects.
Establishment of Indian boarding schools
Indian boarding schools were primarily established in order to kill the Indian culture and ensure that they adopt a Euro-American culture that was completely alien to them. There are several other reasons why the Indian boarding school was established, such as weakening families by taking their children away (Smith, 2010).
Indian boarding schools were first established by Christian missionaries, who had the sole intention to provide education for the native people, “The Carlisle Indian Industrial School established by a US Army officer Richard Henry Pratt” was the first school to adopt total assimilation of the Indian culture (Smith, 2010, p. 34).
The school was built in 1879 at a military facility and its curriculum was based on what was taught in prison. The school was established following Pratt’s successful teaching “experiments” on young Indian prisoners (Smith, 2010, p. 35).
Schools were widely used as a way of “civilizing” Indians mainly by the church (Monaghan, 2005, p. 56). The rationalizations of the “manifest destiny” and the doctrine of “discovery” were widely used as an excuse by the European settlers to commit atrocities on the Native Americans (Pease, 1986). The Christian belief of manifest destiny was used as a prelude in the expansion and colonization of the Americas (Harley, 1994).
Basing on this belief, the missionaries felt obliged to spread the gospel to the natives, who, after being softened through Christian ideals, would be colonized by the European settlers. Seemingly, the initial boarding schools established by missionaries were not only meant to impart civilization but also serve as means of achieving the divine mission of spreading the gospel.
The doctrine of “discovery” was a major source of friction and some of its aspects are still present in the current United States property rights (Smith, 2010, p. 45). This doctrine was used to validate the claim that Europeans discovered empty land in the America’s.The Native Americans had a communal land ownership system.
The Europeans had embraced individual land ownership practices. Boarding schools were therefore used to change the Native American’s cultureand the communal land practices by extension.
The boarding school experience
Life in the Indian boarding schools was tough, several victims told about the horrifying experience they went through at the boarding schools. Bill, who belongs to the Pattwin Indian group, remembers that he was sent to the boarding school while aged only six years (Harley, 1994).
He remembers a sad experience which filled an everyday life of the boarding school. He remembers being bathed in Kerosene by matrons and having his head shaved against the Indian culture.
In what can be regarded as transforming Indians inside and out, it’s seen that all aspects of the Indian culture were forbidden. Different accounts provided by individuals who went through the schools show that the Native Americans denied everything that pertained to their culture, from wearing long hair to speaking their language.
The Indian children’s names were changed and they were not allowed to go home to their parents to ensure a cultural disconnection.
The aim of the government was to replace the Indian culture, indeed as stated by Pratt “the only good Indian is a dead one” (Monaghan, 2005, p. 23). This implied that the Indian culture had to be killed. The methods advanced by Pratt and fellow minded Americans were geared towards ensuring that assimilation was gained through total immersion (Pease, 1986).
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The aim was to “kill the Indian culture in the Indians and save them” (Smith, 2010, p. 67). History says that Pratt organized the education of some young Native Americans after he had encountered them at a prison in Florida (Smith, 2010).
It’s said that Pratt saw positive changes in the Indians after teaching them English, some basic economic skills and ways to govern themselves. It was the main reason to establish several boarding schools and kill the Indian culture, as well as ensure that Indians are assimilated into the popular American culture.
Therefore students were to be transformed in regard to “language, religion, family structure, economics, and emotional expression among others” (Smith, 2010, p. 13).
However, things did not always go according to the plan as the children were later subjected to untold abuses. This can be compared to genocide in the sense that it purported to kill the Indian culture and ensure their forceful adoption of an alien culture.
Several historical accounts indicate that students were abused in the boarding schools. The US government ran as many as 100 schools both on and of reservations (Harley, 1994). Young children were sometimes forcibly snatched from their parents. Many of them did not understand what was going on. The late Indian Activist Floyd Red Crow shared on how it felt to be taken away from his mother (Harley, 1994).
He was taken as a young child from a reservation in South Dakota for the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota (Monaghan, 2005). He remembers seeing his mother cry as the bus took him away.
It’s hard to imagine how hurting that was for him and his mother. Annual reports on Indian affairs seemed to suggest that Indians were savages who needed to be compelled by whatever means possible, to send their children to school (Smith, 2010).
Some parents just took their children to these boarding schools simply because there were no other schools for them. It’s important to note that most other public schools were closed for the Indian child. The federal schools were the only ones available to them and curriculum at these boarding schools was different.
The curriculum in the public schools was focused on trades, for example boys studied carpentry, while girl’s curriculum included house keeping (Smith, 2010). There were no concepts in math or other science subjects. Thus, it can be said that, as much as the boarding schools were used to assimilate the Indians, the curriculum was not complete and was not meant to achieve total good for the Indian children.
Punishment in the boarding schools was severe. There were accounts of abuses taking place in the boarding schools in form of beatings, food rationing and heavy labor. The federal government commissioned an investigation on the progress and policies towards the Indian boarding schools (Pease, 1986). The report provided in 1928 revealed the “problem of the Indian Administration” (Smith, 2010, p. 70).
It showed that many of the children in the boarding schools were “overworked, harshly punished and poorly educated” (Smith, 2010, p. 71).This finding makes it hard to believe that the government was indeed committed to ensuring the assimilation of Indians.
The care provided to the Indian children was inadequate in all aspects. In spite of the fact that the food provided was insufficient in both quantity and quality, young children aged between 10 and 12 were being subjected to heavy industrial work for up to four hours a day.
A survey conducted in the 1960s shows that many teacher’s felt that their primary role was to civilize the Native Americans rather than to teach them. This indicates how the schools were institutionalized. The Kennedy administration declared the Indian education to be a national tragedy (Monaghan, 2005).
The emotional impact caused on the Indian children who attended the boarding schools can be seen in some written accounts. For instance, one former student says that he can never forget when he saw his mother cry when he was taken away forcibly.
To this date, there are still several factors that have not been properly addressed regarding the plight of Indians. These problems are often summed up as the “Indian Problem” and most of them pertain to their cultural practices and the land factor. As stated earlier, the doctrine of discovery is still very much in the US constitution (Pease, 1986).
This paper sought to reflect on the events that led to the establishment of the schools, how life was at the schools and their effects on Indian populations, this is in regard to the larger context of the Native American Experience and propose mechanisms on how to deal with the effects.
It’s imperative that the government identifies new workable ways of dealing with the issues affecting the Indians.The government should ensure that measures are undertaken to preserve the Indian culture. By extension, the Dakota and Ojibwe languages should be preserved through measures such as provision of support, promotion and encouragement by the federal government.
Harley, B. (1994). Readings in Diocesan Heritage Volume VIII St. Boniface Indian School. San Bernardino: Diocese of San Bernardino.
Monaghan, E. (2005). Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Boston: University of Massachusetts.
Pease, M. (1986). A Worthy Work in a Needy Time: The Montana Industrial School for Indians. Montana: M. Pease.
Smith, A. (2010). Soul Wound: The legacy of Native American Schools. New york: Amnesty International.