Home Community and Culture Looking back: The chilling truth of Native American boarding schools

Looking back: The chilling truth of Native American boarding schools

“Kill the Indian…Save the Man” was the model for the Native American boarding schools in the late 1800s. 

In 1893, Col. Richard H. Pratt started the first of the off-reservation Native American boarding schools. Per his speech in the same year, his philosophy for  the school’s creation stated, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.”  

These schools in question were federally funded boarding schools that seperated young natives from their families in order to help them assimilate to the expectations of white American society. 

More than anything, the boarding schools looked like solutions for the “so-called Indian problem.” Those who reflect on their time spent at these institutions describe abuse and violation of culture. The boarding schools have a lasting impression in Native culture to this day. 

Reports from the school first defended the need for implementation. Later in the 1920s, another government report found children who attended federal boarding schools were overworked, malnourished, punished intensely and abysmally educated. By 1969, the government  finally acknowledged Indian boarding schools to be a “national tragedy.” 

The boarding school reality  

In the boarding schools, students were taught about the expectations of American life. According to the Native Partnership Organization the nuclear family, monogamy, wealth and beliefs systems were all a part of the strict curriculum. 

Students learned the importance of manifest destiny and how their culture and existence stood in the way of the path God set for the settlers of America. Additionally, the assimilation of the Indian youth included education of arithmetic, democracy and history. 

Native Americans’ beliefs relied on communal ownership and held that the land was for all. The education opposed this and was dedicated to sucking culture from the young Native students and sprouting internal ideals of Christianity and other flawed American ideals. 

Pratt also ensured that students did not return to their homes in the summer. Instead, they lived with white families in hopes of further assimilation. He wanted indigenous folks to choose to stay in white communities for the foreseeable future rather than return home. 

Names were stripped, hair was cut and cultural assault ensued. 

Personal experiences 

Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a late performer and Native American activist, remarked on the trauma inflicted by his experience with boarding school in an interview with NPR

When he was a child, he left his home reservation in South Dakota for Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota. He vividly remembers the day he boarded the bus. 

At the time he believed he was leaving because his mother didn’t want him. Then, at a second glance, he noticed she was crying. 

“It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that,” Westerman said. “I’ll never forget. All the mothers were crying.”

For the remainder of his childhood, Westerman was educated at boarding schools away from his family. In his adult life, he became an actor, activist and songwriter. 

Westerman wrote and sang about his experiences. One lyric is particularly gripping: “You put me in your boarding school, made me learn your white man rule, be a fool.” 

Boarding schools portrayed in art

Wiyot filmmaker Michelle Hernandez released a short film, “Douk, in (2019) about the split among families in Native American communities. The stunning film portrays the sadness and horror sowed into education.

On Indigenous People’s Day in October, Hernandez attended a panel discussion at the University of Southern California to give insight on the film. Hernandez focused on the narrative, rather than shooting documentary style, so viewers would be more connected to the story. During the discussion, Hernandez shared she hopes her film will be used in a classroom setting for the discussion of Native American Boarding Schools. 

“The project came about because I was in grad school and had to figure out a thesis,” Hernandez said. “I had been told these stories growing up, it’s not a secret in our community it’s something we talk about. I was so used to talking about [native boarding schools] when I would tell other people about these stories, no one knew.”

Focusing on two young girls who are under the constant threat of being kidnapped and sent to boarding school, “Douk,” tells the story of a family grappling with the constant fear of being torn apart. The harsh reality of boarding school for indigenous folks is portrayed in a delicate and impactful manner. 

“I wanted to make my family very human, and I feel like we’re not seen as human often. We’re [portrayed] as these stoic people,” said Hernandez. “I wanted to tell the story of a family having their children take it, so that’s why I went in that direction. I wanted to make a short so educators had something to show at the beginning of class and then go have a lesson.” 

Hernandez shared that many of the times she’s shown this film, people have not known about the boarding schools and are often shocked to find out the truth. 

Panel moderator and Native graduate film student Kapena Baptista said that he too felt the film to be powerful. 

“So little is known about the boarding school experience and what was done to a lot of our relatives throughout Indian country,” Baptista said. 

While the boarding schools have been deemed a national tragedy, there is still much history that is not a part of mainstream education. Hernandez, as a female identifying indigenous filmmaker, aims to work with allies to help find a solution. 

“These things stem from when colonization began. All the history of Native women and all the [oppression] that has happened to them and it just continually happens,”Hernandez said. “We need it to stop. We need people to speak up for us, and we need people to stop ignoring that these things are happening and stop ignoring us.”

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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