Boarding Schools

A few years ago, I taught a class for Oregon State University at Eastern called Northwest Tribes and Ecosystems. It was a three-year teaching—and learning—experience for me. We covered the times and the territory, from the earliest introduction of European diseases through horses, explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and treaty-makers to dam builders and Indian assimilation programs.

The most telling thing I brought to class was a five-minute video trailer for a longer documentary called “The Thick Dark Fog,” the story of Walter Littlemoon’s boarding school experience. I chose it because I was born and raised just miles away in Minnesota within a year or two of Walter’s birth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My Minnesota town was right next to the White Earth Reservation, I explained to the students. Yet we knew nothing of the children on that reservation. We did not know if or where they went to school, never heard the words boarding school, and learned only stereotypical and racist ideas of Indians—as lazy with tribal benefits, living in dilapidated houses with flashy cars, unable to handle alcohol.

Walter grew up with what he called a thick dark fog that obscured his boarding school days for many years; the film tells his journey of rediscovery. This was all years ago, before the recent revelations of children’s bodies found on the grounds of boarding schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, before I read Richard Wagemese’s novel of Canadian boarding school abuse and survival, Indian Horse. New revelations now appear regularly, and our Secretary of the Interior, Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland, has just announced an initiative that will allow researchers to delve into the records of the federal schools to which Native American children in our United States were forcibly relocated for 150 years.

It was a horrible–and long—chapter in our history. I recently read Beth Piatote’s book, Domestic Subjects, which examines the assimilation efforts, especially of boarding schools and the Dawes Allotment Act, through early Indian writers, including Mourning Dove. Her argument is that both the schools and the act were a direct attack on the extended family systems enjoyed by tribal people. They/we/assimilationists, wanted nuclear, Christian families.

Boarding schools not only impacted the children forced to attend them, taking language, custom, and culture away from them. It also was a de facto disruption to millennia of those things, so that the parents who lost their children also lost the experience of tribal parenting, and the attendees who came home did not have clear models of it.

The good news is that culture has survived, and language is being revived. Like the drums and regalia that were often hidden in that same, early boarding school and allotment time, there have been enough keepers of these important things to allow them to flourish once again. In the longhouse and at food feasts, ancient rhythms and practices on proud display—at least among some Indians in some tribes here in Plateau Indian Country

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