West indian culture

Federal report exposes historic effort to dismantle Indian families and culture

For more than 150 years, the U.S. government pursued an explicit policy of destroying Indian families and culture as the nation seized lands once occupied by native peoples.

A primary weapon in this effort was a system of hundreds of Indian boarding schools – 21 in Minnesota – that separated children from their parents and sought to assimilate them into the predominantly white, European-oriented American culture of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The findings are contained in a report released Wednesday by the US Department of the Interior, the first step in an effort to undo the long-standing damage done by government policies to Indians, Hawaiians and Alaskans.

Most Native Americans in Minnesota have a history with boarding schools — family members who were forced to attend, others who saw them still suffer decades later. The grandmother and great-aunt of Chippewa Bois Forte Tribal Council member Shane Drift were forced to attend Vermilion Lake Indian School in the 1920s.

“We are still dealing with the effects of boarding schools,” from language loss to trauma, he said. “It’s going to take a while to get to the part where we’re healed.”

A second report is expected to further detail the long-term effects of the boarding school system, as well as the amount of federal funds spent, much of the money coming from trust funds set up for the tribes. The second report will include a list of marked and unmarked burial places of Indian children who died in schools, an estimated number of over 500.

“The consequences of federal policies on Indian boarding schools, including the intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural eradication inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old, are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

“My priority is not only to give voice to survivors and descendants of federal residential school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so that Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal. »

Children taken away by force

The report, the result of a year-long investigation, details for the first time the scope and goals of India‘s boarding school system. There were 408 such schools across the country from 1819 to 1969, including 21 schools in 18 towns in Minnesota.

“Beginning with President Washington,” the report says, “the declared policy of the federal government was to replace the culture of the Indians with our own. This was considered “advisable” as the cheapest and safest way to subjugate the Indians, to provide a safe environment. a habitat for the white inhabitants of the country, to help white people acquire desirable land, and to change the economy of the Indian so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon through which these goals were to be achieved.

The children were the key to the effort. In 1871, federal law required Indian parents to send their children to school or lose their food rations or other benefits. Federal agents often forcibly removed children from their homes.

Drift’s aunt was taken first. Her grandmother’s parents hid her so the federal agents couldn’t kidnap her either. But eventually they came back for her, he said.

“She never shared what it was. She wouldn’t,” Drift said. But, he said, the experience caused a permanent inner turmoil and she turned to alcohol to cope.

Matthew Northrup’s father, author Jim Northrup, was sent to Pipestone Indian Boarding School from the Fond du Lac reservation, an experience he has documented in his work.

“It affected him tremendously,” Matthew Northrup said of his father, who died in 2016. “To be able to survive something like that, it was basically an effort to destroy an individual on a personal and collective level. It’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”

Northrup, who taught tribal studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, said he tells students, “What you learn about this is going to break your heart,” noting that he thinks more than 500 Native American children died in federal institutions and religious boarding schools.

Strong church involvement

Melanie Benjamin, president of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the band held a meeting with tribes in Minnesota last summer after unmarked graves were discovered in Canada.

“We were appalled by the horrible news,” she said, even though many Minnesotans had sent their families to boarding schools. “We all know the stories… where our loved ones would be beaten if they spoke the language, cutting hair.”

About half of Indian schools were affiliated with religious institutions, with the church providing funds or receiving funds from the federal government.

Minnesota tribes requested information from the Catholic Church, which ran some of the schools in the state. Benjamin said they looked for records of the children sent to them, an accounting they are still waiting for.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a statement on Wednesday expressing “sorrow and shame” for the church’s role in running schools.

“The clear teaching of the Catholic Church today is that Indigenous peoples and cultures should be respected and never harmed or sacrificed in the name of evangelization,” Hebda said.

He called the report “an important first step in what I anticipate will be a painful but necessary journey for our country and for our Church.”

Benjamin said the schools were “trying to strip the identity of these Indian children – quenching the fire of their ability to move forward in their way of life.”

“Healing the intergenerational harm caused is a very real problem that costs our tribes millions a year in programming,” she said, including language recovery and mental health services. “This pain that we carry from generation to generation and the social ills that we endure – a lot of it goes back to when these kids were in boarding schools.”

Brenda Child, Northrop Professor of American Studies and Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of “Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940.” Her grandparents were sent to boarding schools and she said nothing in the report surprised her.

For much of that time, Child said, many Native Americans died of tuberculosis and the flu, with the community setting of boarding schools allowing the disease to spread. She said the report shows the comprehensiveness of the federal system.

“It’s not shocking and not necessarily new information to historians and scholars of Native American studies,” she said, who “have tried to tell the human stories from the perspective of the Indians themselves.” .

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