Just this week, the Canadian Government announced it would pay $31.5 billion to help compensate indigenous communities harmed by the nation’s discriminatory child welfare system. The majority of the money will go toward compensating the families of children who were unnecessarily removed from their homes. The settlement is just the latest in a slew of measures aimed at reconciling Canada’s fraught history with indigenous people. The U.S. has also begun measures to both uncover more information about what occurred in child welfare systems focused on indigenous children and specifically the Indian Boarding School system. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland (the U.S’s first indigenous cabinet member) has even announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative directed at studying and perhaps rectifying the long standing impacts of these schools.
The American Indian boarding school system got its start in 1860 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened the first school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington. The aim of the boarding school system was, as famously stated by American Army lieutenant Richard Pratt, to “Kill the Indian, save the man”. The schools set forth a process of assimilation where indigenous children were taught the “American way of life” in order to civilize its students. Indigenous children were often forcefully removed from their homes and families and placed in these schools where cultural practices and languages were intentionally deleted. The ramifications of the boarding school system are still seen today where the intergenerational trauma caused by these practices has resulted in higher rates of poverty, disease, and mental health issues in indigenous communities.
It is important to showcase the horrors of the boarding school system to our students. Indeed, our state standards require social studies educators to highlight multiple instances of oppression throughout history. Additionally, it is important for our indigenous students to feel that their community’s history is seen and heard and for all of our students to have an opportunity to evaluate this chapter in our history and how it contends with our values as a nation.
However, as traumatizing as the boarding school system was for indigenous youth and their families, we must balance the victimization with the countless instances of resistance and resilience on behalf of these communities. Myself and a colleague led a group of secondary social studies teachers through a day of professional learning at the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in November of 2021. When the teachers were asked to brainstorm the topic areas we present to our students on indigenous history, they found that much of what they covered presented indigenous groups as monolithic victims while their presence also fell out of focus following Indian Removal. While the narratives presented were important and relevant to indigenous history, we collectively recognized their shortcomings. Perhaps Daniel Cobb of the University of North Carolina said it best when he stated, “The history of tribal nations is one of durability, integrity, perseverance and grit through more than 500 years of colonialism. The survival of the Native Americans is one of the extraordinary stories of survival in human history. The American Indians should be considered as peoples with a past and not people of the past.”
When we look through the archives of many of these schools and organizations, we see that boarding school students found many ways to challenge discriminatory practices and maintain their cultural integrity. There are many accounts of students running away from these schools, returning to their homes, and their parents refusing to send them back. Students sometimes organized hunger strikes to protest their captivity. Parents of students at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City camped outside of the school grounds in order to keep an eye on their children. Students at various schools would group together in secret to speak in their tribal languages, a practice banned at most schools, in order to keep their cultures alive. In fact, out of the Carlisle Indian school came the Society of American Indians, the first American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians. These are just a few instances of resistance and resilience on behalf of indigenous communities faced with the boarding school system and as governments and private entities begin to dig deeper into this history, more examples are coming to light. Organizations have digitized many primary sources to help teachers present these previously untold stories. Here are just a few to look into.
The boarding school system is but one example of an opportunity to bring examples of indigenous resistance and resilience into the classroom. In truth, when we teach about any instance of oppression and discrimination we should make sure that we aren’t giving our students the impression that the victims of these episodes remained dormant. From the many African Americans who pushed for voting rights in the 1950s and 60s to the LGBTQ organizations that fought for more recognition and better treatment during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, students should walk away from these lessons with the understanding that throughout U.S. and global history, oppression of marginalized groups has been met with resistance and resilience.
Professional Learning Opportunity
The 18th Annual Northern Nevada Council for the Social Studies Conference
Theme: Missed History: Indigenous Perspectives
Location: Reed High School, Sparks NV
Date: April 9th, 2022
Compensation: ½ In-Service Credit
Description: A day of learning and reflection on indigenous history and modern perspectives. Featuring keynote speaker, Gregg Deal, and an afternoon panel showcasing indigenous perspectives on current issues. Breakout sessions will focus on teaching strategies and increasing teacher background knowledge of indigenous history.
Link to Registration
Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. Potentially Terminal Illness of Ernest (Knocks Off) | Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/documents/potentially-terminal-illness-ernest-knocks
Changing the narrative about Native American history. The Great Courses Daily. (2021, February 5). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/changing-the-narrative-about-native-american-history/
Impact of historical trauma. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://boardingschoolhealing.org/education/impact-of-historical-trauma/
Kesler, S. Y. (2021, August 28). Indian boarding schools' traumatic legacy, and the fight to get native ancestors back. NPR. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/28/1031398120/native-boarding-schools-repatriation-remains-carlisle
Native American History and Culture: Boarding Schools - American Indian Relief Council is now Northern Plains Reservation Aid. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=airc_hist_boardingschools
Pember, M. A. (2021, November 24). A history not yet laid to rest. The Atlantic. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/native-american-boarding-schools/620760/
Porter, C., & Isai, V. (2022, January 4). Canada pledges $31.5 billion to settle fight over indigenous child welfare system. The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/04/world/canada/canada-indigenous-children-settlement.html
Student experiences. Away from Home. (2020, March 3). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://heard.org/boardingschool/student-experiences/