Recently, we were shocked by the news from Canada about 215 remains of Indigenous children found in Kamloops, British Columbia, at one of the many Indian residential schools. I’m certain that just the thought of seeing the remains of children together, piled up, thrown in a common hole without any consideration, breaks our hearts.
When we hear the word genocide, we instantly think of Nazi concentration camps, Rwanda, and other well-known facts. But, we rarely think that “kill the Indian, save the man” is also genocide. For Richard Henry Pratt, this idea was simply brilliant. Pratt was a U.S. Army officer in the 1800s, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was the architect of the U.S. assimilationist campaign and famous for the phrase.
For the children at the boarding schools, Priests, nuns, ministers, schoolmasters, and matrons would replace the parents of thousands of children removed from their families.
Since the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, removing Indigenous people, expanding territory for plantations, civilizing and Christianizing the Indigenous children were already part of the idea of colonizing the New World .
We don’t know the exact number of children removed from their homes and land and placed in U.S. boarding schools. However, the estimation is around 80,889 children were forced to attend these boarding schools.
How much do we know about the Indian Boarding schools? How many stories of survivors of Indian Boarding schools in the U.S. have we heard?
According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), “There were more than 350 government-funded, and often church-run, Indian Boarding schools across the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.” This map shows the locations of some of those boarding schools. In addition, archive records from organizations, libraries, and churches make it possible to know the existence of these boarding schools, the age of the children, the tribes and nations of the children, pictures, and even the propaganda promoting the importance of assimilating these Native children.
Part of the strategy was for the children to be far away from their homes and land, so they could not return to their families. Thousands of children died trying to escape. Others were killed for the punishments provided once they were found and returned to the schools. Thousands and thousands suffered all types of abuses, severe punishment, illness, malnutrition, and harsh discipline at the hands of the schools. When we think about these boarding schools, we need to consider the purpose of these places. The objective was to destroy the essence of these children. Their soul, their spirits, their will has to be destroyed because that is useless.
Am I appealing to your emotions? Yes, I am. I’m appealing for all of us to be sensitive and try to feel the pain of the thousands of fathers and mothers whose children were ripped from their hands. What can justify such horror?
Unfortunately, that horror story has not ended. The stories of survivors of Indian boarding schools share similar elements—disconnection with their families, their culture, their language, their spirituality, their way of living. Sadly, the assimilation plan destroyed families, tribes, and entire nations still today because Native Americans continue to be alienated and impoverished in every sense of the word. In other words, learning the American way of life and Christian “lifestyle” did not benefit them but rather destroyed them.
Generations did not learn parenting skills—how to love and nurture their children, face conflicts or express feelings, relationships in the family, internalization of low self-esteem. The trauma created by these boarding schools is present today in the survivors and the newest generations.
Today, as a result of removal and relocation, confined reservations, boarding schools, broken treaties, and many other things done against Indigenous peoples in the name of civilization and Christianization brought violence, epidemics, trauma, and intergenerational trauma, drug and alcohol addictions, suicide, poverty, alienation.
On June 4, 2021, the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School (MI) held a special day to remember and honor the children who died while attending the boarding school. As part of this day, they announced the student roll-call. This special time began with songs and drumming. Then, a line of children and adults holding signs with the deceased child’s name around their neck entered a circle. As they approached the circle, the student’s name was called out, followed by one beat of the drum. This continued until all the 167 names were called. It is difficult not to get emotional while you watch this. They were children.
Here are three resources that will help you to learn a different narrative of the history of racism in the country:
- Indian School: A Survivor’s Story (video of 40:30 min.)
- The Lost Ones. The Long Journey Home Trailer (YouTube video, bi-lingual Spa/Eng)
- Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center
Note about "pile up" expression.
Although the article written about the 215 remains of Indigenous children found in Kamloops, British Columbia, does not say “piled up, thrown in a common hole without any consideration,” it is essential to mention that there was spiritual violence in how they disposed of the bodies. Even if the bodies were not “piled up” as I described it, their impact is still the same.
The literature and stories of survivors tell us that the bodies of the children who died in these boarding schools were not treated with care and love. Their place of death doesn't have their names. Children in these boarding schools were recipients of beatings, brutal punishments, malnutrition, and abuses of all kinds regardless of age. It’s essential to keep in mind what was the primary purpose of these schools.
To learn about the treatment of children and burial policies in Indian boarding schools, you may want to read the:
- Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – pg. 90
- Visit the Search Database of NABS and look for stories (Recounting of sexual torture by priests and nuns spurts S.D. Bill). You may need to create a free account to have access to these records.
- How residential schools in Canada robbed Indigenous children of their identity and lives - video
- The U.S. stole generations of Indigenous children to open the West
When possible, reach us to schedule a Blanket Exercise at your congregation, classis, school, or organization to learn the history of the U.S. through the perspective of Native Americans. (This exercise is done face to face only).