Ground-penetrating radar this year revealed hundreds of anonymous graves in former residential schools in Canada.
The poignant discovery – remnants of a government policy that sought to eradicate Indigenous cultures by separating approximately 150,000 children from their families from the 19th century to the 1990s – sparked a backlash from religious leaders and officials around the world.
In the United States, Home Secretary Deb Haaland cried when she saw the headlines from Canada. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, and her maternal grandparents were among the children subject to a similar policy on this side of the border. The Home Office, which she now heads, has overseen hundreds of boarding schools for more than a century.
Native American leaders and community members have repeatedly called on the U.S. government to take responsibility for these family separations, which historians describe as part of efforts to break tribal control over the land. In late June, Haaland, who became secretary this year under the Biden administration, asked the department to prepare a report on boarding school policy and its ramifications by April 2022.
“Survivors of trauma from boarding school policies carried their memories into adulthood by becoming the aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents of subsequent generations,” Haaland wrote in a memo about the initiative. “The loss of those who have not returned has left their families with a lingering need for answers which in many cases have never been provided. “
Haaland’s initiative has been hailed by the National Congress of American Indian, which represents 574 federally recognized tribal nations. However, the organization maintains that a truth commission – like those in many countries that have sought to atone for their past – is needed to move forward, a commission that includes support for survivors and their descendants.
Here are more details about the problem:
What were residential schools like in the United States and what were they intended for?
According to historians, from the 19th century to the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous families were forced to send their children to residential schools run by the federal government or religious groups. For people on reserves, coercion ranged from denial of their food rations to jail for refusing to abandon their children.
The precise number of campuses remains unknown, said Denise Lajimodiere, historian, educator and founding member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit group formed in 2012 to raise policy awareness.
But after years of work – including reviews of university records, government offices, church registers, museums, historical societies, and personal collections – she and her fellow researchers have identified 406 boarding schools in 30 states.
Prior to the creation of these institutions, Lajimodière said in a telephone interview, the territorial expansion of the United States prioritized the extermination of indigenous groups. Then federal policy evolved into control by forced assimilation.
Captain Richard H. Pratt, a Civil War veteran who later participated in military offensives against Native Americans, played a key role in the transition, Lajimodière said. When he was deployed to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, Native POWs were part of Pratt’s experiment to “civilize” those he saw as “savages”.
The captives, who had been dispatched hundreds of kilometers from their homes, spent part of the day doing manual labor. The rest of their time was spent studying English and the Christian religion. In 1879, Pratt established the first government-run residential school for Native children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, using his experiences in Florida as a model.
Although the experiences of former students have varied, Lajimodière said, the schools were created to strip Indigenous children of their heritage, making it easier for them to integrate into the mainstream culture. Children were often forced to cut their hair and be given new names. They were also prohibited from speaking their language or engaging in cultural practices.
Boarding schools, often underfunded, tended to use child labor, ranging from campus maintenance to agricultural work. One of the women interviewed by Lajimodière for her book “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors” was a student at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, Dakota. South, in the 1960s. As a girl, the woman had worked to put small plastic rosaries on cards used for fundraising.
Many children have been sent to campuses hundreds of kilometers from their families.
“Parents were seen as the enemy. The theory was that if you took the child away from its parents, you could change the whole culture in a generation, ”Joel Spring, professor emeritus at the City University of New York and author of the book“ Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States, ”said in a telephone interview.
This isolation created conditions conducive to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, historians have said. While corporal punishment was common when residential schools were established, Indigenous children had few or no options.
Some schools allowed students to phone home. But when they did, their supervisors often hovered over them, warning them not to reveal anything unpleasant to their parents.
Another woman interviewed by Lajimodière for her book said she was regularly assaulted by a priest at St. Joseph’s Indian School. When she complained of pain in her genitals, the same priest took her to the doctor. She was 6 years old.
What are the goals of the initiative and other efforts?
The main objective of the Haaland initiative is to identify boarding schools and possible student burial sites. The Home Office also aims to establish the identity and tribal affiliations of the children buried. He also undertook to compile files on the internship program.
The National Congress of American Indian approved a resolution to capitalize on the initiative, asking the Home Office to conduct “non-destructive and non-invasive” ground imaging at residential schools to determine how many students died there. The group also called on Congress to establish a “Truth and Healing Commission” that would last at least three years.
The group is hoping for a process like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was set up as part of a class action settlement. This commission spent six years collecting testimonies from 6,500 witnesses across the country. The Canadian government has also provided 5 million academic records, now housed at the University of Manitoba and most of which are accessible to the public.
Many residential schools were affiliated with religious groups. How did their leaders react?
The news of the Anonymous Graves also prompted a response from Pope Francis, who posted a tweet expressing his “closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by [the] shocking discovery.
But indigenous groups across the country want a formal apology.
Since nearly three-quarters of publicly funded residential schools in Canada were run by Catholic missionaries, the papal apology was one of 94 recommendations made by his commission. To this day, this demand has still not been met. In contrast, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have apologized for their involvement.
In 2018, the Canadian bishops said the Pope could not apologize personally. Critics noted that Francis apologized for colonizing Latin America during a trip to Bolivia in 2015.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contacted the Vatican this summer, urging the Pope to apologize to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil. The pontiff is due to meet with residential school survivors in December.
So far, these plans do not extend to the United States, where at least 14 religious denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, were involved in the boarding system.
How can the US government address the intergenerational trauma caused by these institutions?
Spring, a registered member of the Choctaw Nation in the United States whose job as a forensic historian investigated residential schools in Alberta, Canada, said Indigenous parents from both countries were discouraged from visiting to their children.
“No one has really thought about the psychological consequences of tearing children away from their families,” he said.
In conjunction with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the National Indian Health Board, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, and Representative Sharice Davids, D-Kan., Sent a letter to the Indian Health Service in mid -August. request culturally appropriate support for affected communities, especially those who may experience trauma as a result of revelations emerging from the initiative.
Other lawmakers signed the letter recommending the creation of a hotline that residential school survivors and their descendants could use to access mental health services, much like Canada’s Hope for Wellness hotline. , which offers assistance throughout the country.
“Healing will be different for everyone,” said Lajimodière. “Maybe it will involve psychiatrists, maybe it will involve spiritual ceremonies – there is no one way. Everyone has to decide this for themselves.