Chain of sorrow
The legacy of Indian boarding schools, and the documentary that attempts to heal still-open wounds
Published: September 21, 2011
The result, she says, is "intergenerational trauma."
McGowan and Givens know firsthand about the reticence of boarding school survivors to disclose their experiences. They didn't learn that one of their great-grandmothers had been sent to the nation's first Indian boarding school — at Carlisle, Pa. — until accidentally finding her name in the school's records while doing research. As it turns out, she attended the school with Petoskey's grandfather.
In his book, Petoskey talks about the difficult relationship he had with his own father, and the problems that caused for him early on in his life. In a very real sense, what McGowan describes as the value in his book is the same that she and her sister hope will be the result of their documentary:
"Warren Petoskey's work — the telling of his personal story — is an attempt to put the issue on the table; to break the cycle of pain and dysfunction. The revelation of his own pain and suffering will encourage other native people to come forward and hopefully, non-native people will gain a measure of understanding, which will result in a more human approach to dealing with Indians."
They want to help reveal what happened, and in those revelations, help the healing process.
The wounds are deep and longstanding.
'Kill the Indian ... save the man'
In 1879, a U.S. Army captain by the name of Richard H. Pratt opened this country's first official Indian boarding school in the town of Carlisle, Pa. A former Indian fighter, Pratt had also been in charge of a group of Plains Indians being held as prisoners of war in Florida during the early 1870s.
The school at Carlisle was a former Army barracks, and Pratt transferred his military experience to the teaching of Indian children. It would become the model for schools across the country that followed.
Pratt articulated his philosophy this way:
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
At the time it was considered an enlightened attitude. These were, after all, a conquered people America's white settlers had been at war with for hundreds of years, and the prevailing view was that these people remained "savages" that needed to be civilized.
Adult Indians were deemed a lost cause. They were too set in their ways. And for the children to be "civilized," it was determined that they had to be removed from the influence of their parents. Simply providing them an education at reservation schools wasn't enough. That attitude was reflected in an 1886 report produced by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
"However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction for the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated. ..."
The intent was to annihilate the culture of Native Americans by stripping their children of all connections to the past. The approach quickly caught on as it was adopted as the official policy of the U.S. government. By 1890, there were more than 190 such schools across the country, according to a research paper written by Stephen A. Colmant, a psychotherapist who worked with Native Americans.
It is noted in various historical accounts that, in some cases, conditions on reservations were so harsh, and life there so impoverished, that some willingly allowed their children to be taken away in the hopes that their lives would be bettered.
However, there is also ample evidence that the resistance of parents to the forced removal of their children was widespread and often intense.
"They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile," Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, told NPR in a 2008 interview. "There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was that it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away."
As noted in a U.S. Park Service history of Alcatraz Island, 19 Hopi men from Arizona were imprisoned there in 1895 after refusing to relinquish their children:
"Their crimes were unique in the 140-year history of incarceration on the Rock: they wouldn't farm in the ways the federal government instructed them, and they opposed the forced removal and education of their children in government boarding schools. Both 'offenses' were part of widespread Indian resistance to U.S. policies designed to erase each tribe's language and religion."
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