Boarding Schools and Religion

What do we make of it, the long and sickening stories of abuse of Indian children in boarding schools in Canada and our own country? How can men—mostly men, but some women too—have done these things to children?

My friends raised in California Catholic schools laugh now about a nun who liked to rap knuckles with a yardstick, but even that, the hitting of small children by a grown woman pledged to teach them, seems to reflect more on her perverse personality or the crazy institution that had aligned with it than it does on the children.

Sure, there were and are trouble-making children, kids who bring sad stories from sad homes to school with them every day, and work out their home problems by being nasty to other students or contentious with teacher nuns—or any teachers. And there are kids with “just mean” in them that we struggle to understand. But—as we often say—who and where is the adult?

These men—and some women—worked (work?) for the government and for churches. We hear about the Catholics, but other churches ran schools on and near reservations. In fact, in what my mentor, the historian Alvin Josephy, says is the largest breech of the separation of church and state in US history, President Grant set out to remove corrupt Indian agents, who supervised reservations, and “replace them with Christian missionaries, whom he deemed morally superior.” In his “Peace Policy” of 1868, he took administration of the reservations from the War Department and gave it to the churches.

The missionaries proved no more moral as a group than had the government officials they replaced. Or than decades of adult Boy Scout leaders have proven to be. On November 16, 2020, the National BSA disclosed in their bankruptcy filings that over 92,000 former Scouts had reported sexual abuse by members of the organization. Recent stories from the Southern Baptist Convention admit similar sins among their clergy.

Large groups of children in physical and/or social isolation attract do-gooders—and attract those, consciously or unconsciously intent on cruelty. Some, probably tied to their own violent pasts, or carrying mental problems of one sort and another, and others, in the worst cases, intentionally engaging in the school or church or youth group in order to groom children for their sexual pleasure.

What’s the lesson in this? One is that silence aids and abets, another that sins are reiterated in generations. Silence is more nuanced than one word. Silence is lack of sound, lack of voice, but it is also the willful and fear-induced snuffing out of voices and messages. It can also be banal, like the good German burghers who did not smell the crematoriums, like the child that I was who did not notice the lack of Indians from the nearby White Earth Reservation in my Minnesota school.
We talk now of generational PTSD. Generational misbehavior is the other side of PTSD, the perpetrating rather than suffering side of it—although they are undoubtedly side by side in the real world. The lessons are that violence can beget violence, and that sexual abuse can pass through generations.

The first step in resolution is to know the subject. And we should have known! Books and stories of these boarding school tragedies have been here all along. Years ago, the late Canadian Ojibwe writer, Richard Wagamese, told the Canadian boarding school story in the heart-wrenching novel, Indian Horse. They even made a well-received movie with the same title.

Walter Littlemoon was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1942, the same year I was born in nearby Minnesota. He was taken from his parents into a boarding school when he was five, and, after a life of suffering, told the story in a video, “The Thick Dark Fog.” He’d lived that fog of remembrance for almost 60 years when he began to unburden himself. When I showed the video trailer to college students six or eight years ago, they were outraged. (Google it; it’s still there.)

The “evidence” has been there for us to see and read for years. It took time—and graves found with “new” technology revealing Canada’s sins, to lay open these old sins. New technology sometimes excites us, and makes things more real. But the rising consciousness over the past 20 or 30 years of and by Native Americans—Wagamese and Littlemoon are of course part of this—is probably more critical.

And Deb Haaland, our first Native Secretary of the Interior, is rising to the occasion like a phoenix, appointing study groups, giving press conferences, and visiting the sites of child boarding school graves in America.

Bright lights are the best antidote to secret and nefarious deeds. Now we, the people, must make sure that they stay bright and focused. We need contrition, humility, and, when possible, reparations. We need justice for perpetrators. Counselling, mental health, and compassion yes, but we need the words from those still with us, the secret reports from churches and scout troops. Victims and descendants of victims need healing—and so do the perpetrators and the institutions which enabled them.

(Photo: Chemawa Indian School, 1887)

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”

“Rumble” is a 2017 Canadian documentary film that I’d missed until it hit public television. I watched it twice, taking notes the second time, wanting to get in my mind the names of Rock n’ Roll, jazz, and blues musicians I’d listened to—and many I had not heard or heard of before.

I’d have to slow it down and stop action to get all the names and dates, but I know enough now to know that once again the roles of American Indians in the American story have been hidden or muted, and that there is again the story of resilience. Joy Harjo, our current national poet laureate and a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, says, as the credits roll, that “We’re still here; we’re still alive; we’re still singing.Read Rich’s Post →

Indian Frybread

We went to Tamkaliks—the powwow in Wallowa—last night, and of course had to have a piece of frybread. As I watched one woman stretching dough and plopping it into two grease-filled cast iron pots, another woman turn it in the oil, and two men—father and son, it looked like—serve up  the platters of Indian tacos and plain frybread that we dowsed with sugar and honey, I thought about Indian treaties and commodity foods. I know, I’ve been reading too much Josephy and am steeped in the stories of broken treaties, wars, removal, extermination, assimilation—but also the stories of Indian resilience and the miracle of new world tribal survival. And fry bread has its place in all that. 
My friend, the writer Luis Urrea, has a wonderful piece in Hummingbird’s Daughter—that he can recite from memory in four minutes—called “God in a taco.” Maybe it was an “Indian taco.” And that fictional account of wars and spiritual quests in northern Mexico in the late nineteenth century follows on Kit Carson’s scorching and burning of Navajo lands and killing of sheep and stock and the “Long  Walk” in 1863 that took some of them—thousands died on the trail—to a cramped Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, where, according to the Navajo and the Smithsonian Magazine, Indian fry bread was born.
Their crops and stock gone, the Indians were starving, and government supplies of lard, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder or yeast, and powdered milk were often rancid. Frybread came from these few foods provided during the four years of Navajo captivity at Bosque Redondo.  That was 150 years ago, and Indian writer Sherman Alexie now says that “frybread is the story of our survival.”
I think frybread must have flowed across Indian country as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act loosened restrictions on Indian religious and cultural celebrations, and made intertribal gatherings possible. Since that time, and especially since the time of Red Power in the 1970s, powwows and Indian art and literature have knit the people of different tribes and regions of the country together, so that a character in Alexie’s  “Smoke Signals” wears a t-shirt that says “Frybread Power” and Indians across the country can identify.
It sets Alexie against Indian activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who led a crusade against frybread a few years ago, claiming that it was stealing Indian children with diabetes and obesity.
Which brings me back to Josephy, Indian treaties, and commodity foods. The Carson campaign occurs in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, but earlier in the War, in 1862, there were commodity food incidents in Minnesota, where Indians rebelled after their promised reservations kept shrinking and promised commodities—they too were starving after traditional growing, hunting, and gathering grounds were given over to white settlers—were skimmed by Indian agents and white traders. The commodities listed in Josephy’s account were flour and lard. So Indians were having to replace wild rice, berries, maple, and game with white flour and lard!
I tried to find the first treaties that promised food. It was a cursory look, and I will keep hunting for accounts, but at first glance it appears that until the Civil War and the pushing of Indians further west—including the Removal Act of 1830—white government always assumed that there would be land and game and that Indians could somehow—outside of the ken of whites—take care of themselves. But Minnesota homesteading—that Act passed in 1862—made it impossible to dodge the fact that shrinking Indian lands was starving them. And later Civil War incidents in the further West—including the massacres at Sand Creek and Bear River—all had to do with shrinking Indians’ land holdings and starvation. 

The apex of that terrible policy might have been Kit Carson’s campaign, or it might have been the deliberate killing of the buffalo that accompanied the conquering of the Plains Indians. It was all ugly.

So frybread is a kind of middle finger at the white world—“this is what you left us; well, we will survive on it”—and it has become a symbol of Indian unification across tribal boundaries. But it is also, as Harjo pointed out, a symbol and a fact of the short end of the treaties dealt Indians—the exchange of healthy foods and ways of life for lives of dependence and white people’s diseases. Like many things in Indian Country, complex and many-sided.
For more on frybread, its origins and stories, the Smithsonian piece is here:

Class discussion: Charlemagne Napoleon, protein and white bread

I’m stretching my Josephy Library legs, offering a class—“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story”—at the new Josephy Center. It’s based on Alvin materials—chapters from books, speeches, and journal articles he wrote over 50 years—and has become a lively weekly conversation for the dozen of us who gather in the Library on Wednesday mornings. Our text this week was the first chapter of 500 Nations, and the discussion revolved around similarities and differences of the North American tribes, and, inevitably, the rise and fall of cultures.  Culture led to economy, and economy led to—diet.
Barrie Qualle grew up in Saskatchewan ranching country, with Cree, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre Indians all around, and remembered how tall and stout they were. “Six two and six four not unusual,” he said. Barrie thought that their diet must have been heavy in protein and that they lived in a place and at a time when meat and fish were abundant. In lean years, he surmised, their bodies grew even more efficient at converting the foods they had.
We talked about hunter gatherers of the Plains and the agricultural Indians of Mississippian and Mesoamerican cultures, and how food abundance had created wealth and economic specialization—but left those cultures more susceptible to drought and torrent. And historians have indeed laid the failures of the Mississippian Mound and Mayan cultures to dry spell and drought.
 Which all reminded me of a long ago doctor’s office visit where I picked up a medical magazine and read about a study of the height of soldiers in Charlemagne’s and Napoleon’s armies.  The author was trying to establish the impacts of diet and climate on human health, and finding old records of soldiers’ heights gave him something to compare. It was a stark comparison. Charlemagne’s army, in the late 700s, was made up of six footers; Napoleon and his troops, a thousand years later, were five footers. 
At least two hundred of those thousand intervening years are known as “Europe’s Little Ice Age,” a time when cold and starvation, though not in every year or every decade, were substantial and frequent. The period coincides almost exactly with the rise of European colonialism and the white settlement of America. 

So the scrawny white guys, armed with guns and diseases and a sense that they were God’s chosen, came to the New World and pushed south from the Caribbean and West from the Atlantic Coast. And as they pushed and “removed” indigenous people with their guns and diseases and notions of cultural and religious superiority, they took Indians from their food and food from Indians—in North America, slaughtered the buffalo and pinched tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations—and then wrote return payment with commodities into their treaties. In other words, they took away the protein and gave them sugar, flour, and salt (skimming as they went, so the Indians were robbed of protein and then even of the white commodities).
That is the pattern that Alvin describes in Civil War in the American West—whites protected trails, settled land, fought or wrote treaties, promised cash and food, reneged and/or skimmed, fought and wrote more treaties, pinched more land…
It occurs to me that there is a direct line from those actions and treaties to the commodity foods of today, and that good and bad, fat and thin, protein and white flour, good nutrition and the lack of it, running from starvation and causing it, are all part of the big historical landscape and North America today.  
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