SEATTLE – When Patricia Whitefoot learned of the remains of 215 children found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, she was devastated.
The children’s grave shocked the world, but for Whitefoot the horror hit it close.
As members of the Yakama Nation in central Washington, Whitefoot’s family experienced firsthand the trauma of the U.S. boarding school that ripped Native American children from their families and forced them to reject the Native American language and culture.
Whitefoot, who was raised by her maternal grandparents, said her grandmother told Whitefoot that her mouth was washed out with caustic soap for speaking her native language at Fort Simcoe Native boarding school in White Swan, Yakima County, in the early 20th century . Despite this abuse, Whitefoot’s grandparents continued to speak the Yakama language, even though their grandmother was beaten for it at boarding school.
When Whitefoot was a child in the 1950s, she lived on the Yakima Indian Christian Mission, which she describes as a painful part of her life.
Separated from her family, once at the mission school, she saw her grandparents only occasionally and in the summer.
“We also have unmarked graves of children, children who have been missing [in the U.S.]. And in those earlier ages there was no good accountability for the lives of children in boarding schools and then in mission schools. So damage has been done, ”said Whitefoot.
The United States had 367 indigenous boarding schools run by religious organizations or the US government. Over 70 are still in operation today, the oldest continuously operating is the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. An estimated two-thirds of Native Americans attended boarding schools at some point in their lives in the 1930s, according to a 2008 story in the Seattle Times.
The first U.S. government-run boarding school off the reservation was the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1879 by Captain Richard H. Pratt, its infamous motto “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” spoke volumes about the real purpose and brutality of these institutions.
“Killing the Indians” meant forced religious conversions, punishment for speaking native languages, anglicised name changes, indoctrination about western values and ways of life and of course family separation. Sexual and physical abuse were ubiquitous in schools too, survivors reported.
As a longtime educator, Whitefoot said it was important to see schools in a larger historical context. Boarding schools are only “part of this policy of assimilation or the extermination of us as a people,” she said.
Christine Diindissi McCleave is a registered citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation and Chief Executive Officer of the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
McCleave said people need to understand that the US has its own missing children and that its boarding schools are the model for the Canadian system.
“We absolutely know we have that here in the United States because they [National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition] did our own research, ”said McCleave. “And we know that many schools had cemeteries. We know that some of the graves are not marked. And we know that when we talk to people – indigenous people in tribal communities, urban aboriginal communities – that yes … almost everyone has a boarding school history in their family. “
McCleave’s own family also has a history of boarding schools. Her grandfather went to a Catholic Indian boarding school and her great-grandfather was a student in Carlisle. In college, McCleave learned more about the influence of boarding schools on Aboriginal spirituality and Christianity.
“When I started reading about it, I cried because it is a terrible story to read and hear about, but as a native, it just hits differently,” she said.
“It just hits you differently because to me it really made it clear to me that this explains a lot of the intergenerational trauma, the grief, the sadness that I grew up with, that I felt in my family, in my ancestry. It really explained a lot of it, ”said McCleave. “And so we often educate the natives about history so that they can understand their own family history.”
McCleave said some struggled to understand how families could give up their children. But what people don’t know is that the US government used force and force to separate families. She said there were laws requiring families to send their children to boarding school or face penalties such as loss of food rations or imprisonment.
Pratt may have seen himself as a savior, but McCleave said, “He was just trading straight genocide for cultural genocide.”
To heal, McCleave would like the US to press ahead with an “Investigation, Documentation and Recognition of Past Injustices” commission proposed by then US MP Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in late 2020. the US government’s boarding school policy. In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 2008 to tackle the damage suffered by boarding schools under a settlement agreement that awarded 28,000 victims of the system $ 3 billion.
In 2015, the Seattle City Council approved a resolution drafted by Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota) to recognize “damage and ongoing historical and intergenerational trauma” due to the boarding era of Indians, First Nations and Native Americans.
The damage caused by boarding and boarding school policies is cross-generational and omnipresent. But as much as they tried to use every means to eradicate the native language and culture, Pratt and his successors failed.
Mother tongue and cultural revival are increasing. Whitefoot may have lost some of her ability to speak the Yakama language, but her children and grandchildren are learning.
But for true healing to be successful, we must face our story.
As McCleave said, “Nothing will change unless we go through this process of confronting the truth and our past and seeing how it affects the indigenous people of this land.”