‘Kill the culture; Save the Child’: Investigating Native American Boarding Schools, a Dark Chapter in U.S. History
After the discovery of 200 unmarked graves last year in Canada at an Indian residential school, the grim discovery prompted the US government to launch a nationwide investigation. CBN News traveled to Montana to explore this tragedy that has become an issue on both sides of the border.
“Children are the most important to have a good education and to be safe,” said Wes Bremner.
But that wasn’t the case sometimes for Bremner, who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation. He attended Cut Bank Boarding School in northwest Montana. As a sophomore in the 60s, the distance and harsh winters made it a necessity. His first day turned out to be tough.
Residential school abuse
“One of the matrons – he was a big, big man, a white man – said, ‘Hey, little f’ers, hold on!’ He said, ‘Stop it!’ He said, “Do you want a horn?” “Bremner told CBN News.
He said the man then hit him with his fist.
“He hit me between the eyes and almost knocked me out,” Bremner explained. “And I went against the wall, and I was a little wobbly on my feet.”
“And he said, ‘Now you go to bed!’ And it was around this time of day,” he continued, referring to late afternoon/early evening.
The degrading and abusive treatment did not stop there.
“They would shave our heads, and they would leave strands of hair to make you look awkward and kick you out of the barber chair and ‘Next!’ and make you run like that,” Bremner explained. “And then later they would come and they would call you back, and they would shave everything.”
When asked if he had ever been sexually abused at boarding school, he replied, “If I was, I’d take it to my grave. It’s in the past.”
And then after a long pause and trying to hold back his emotions, he said, “It’s not something you would do, it’s nobody’s business.”
The boarding school where Bremner attended is still operational today. He says it is better handled and the abuse that took place when he was a student is now unknown.
On the Flathead Reservation in Montana, native boarding schools existed alongside the St. Ignatius Mission. Jesuit priest and pastor Fr. Craig Hightower, SJ, told CBN News that abuse is also happening at these schools.
“Most of it was sexual abuse – there’s no doubt about it, and it’s been argued in court before,” he said. “Most of the abuse was trying to take their culture away from them, trying to assimilate them into the white world, and the corporal punishment of the time, I mean just the corporal punishment that was common in that time.”
All that remains of the original Ursuline Academy at St. Ignatius are the remains of a grotto which contained a statue of Mary. Children aged from kindergarten through high school gathered in a building that once stood on the property.
“Was it worse with priests than with nuns? Maybe, maybe not, but those were the big controversies about really beating children and things like that,” Hightower said. “Unfortunately, it was part of the general culture.”
According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, more than 350 US government-funded and often church-run boarding schools operated in the 19th and 20th centuries. The movement began under the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, with the goal of assimilating native children.
Bremner says his mother was one of thousands of children taken from their communities.
“That was when they literally snatched children from homes and forced them to go to the mission, which was run by priests and nuns,” he said. “There was a sign there that said, ‘Kill the culture; Save the child “.”
Montana State Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy (D-MT; House District 42), who is a member of the Crow tribe, told CBN News that while Crow children were not forcibly removed, the objective remained the same.
“Children weren’t allowed to speak the language, that is, and part of that was the hair was cut, especially with the boys, and the girls, their hair was cut, and then they were forced into the modern dress,” she explained.
The discovery in 2021 of more than 200 unmarked graves at an Indian boarding school in Canada led US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to launch a national investigation, the “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative”.
Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, says her eight-year-old grandparents were taken from their families. She hopes the investigation will “shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past”.
“A lot of them died; some of them probably died of broken hearts, and a lot of them just died from being in close contact with a disease that they couldn’t get rid of because that everyone was crammed in,” Montana State Sen said. Jason Small (R-MT; Senate District 21), a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, told CBN News.
“What we want for our children is to help them reconnect with who they are, to be strong and to have prosperous nations,” Peregoy said. “That’s what we hope Deb Haaland can do is change the policy, the education policy, to empower.”
“It’s not strange that Native American communities don’t trust the government,” said Patrick Matt, Jr., a member of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes. His parents attended boarding schools in St. Ignatius, Montana. “But to be able to build and heal connections within Native American communities and county governments, state governments and the federal government, and to have that conversation so that we can move forward.”
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