Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro
New England was lucky enough, in a way, to avoid a majority of the Indian school controversies. Of all the New England states, Vermont contained only one residential school, Castleton Academy in Castleton, which is now known as Castleton College. The other states are not so lucky.
In the United States alone, there were 408 residential schools, spanning 37 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Until recently, the 139 Canadian residential schools received all of the attention. This is not just a Canadian problem. These schools, both in Canada and the United States, were run by different religious organizations, including the Catholic Church and the Jesuit communities among others. The schools were run by the missionaries that recruited the children.
The premise for the schools were the same, to “kill the Indian and save the man,” as Captain Richard Henry Pratt so kindly stated in his speech in 1892 during the National Conference of Charities and Correction, held in Denver, Colorado.
Both Canada and the United States ran the schools in a similar manner, taking Native American children off their reservations and sending them to these schools. Oftentimes, families were threatened by the federal government and were forced to hand over their children. In some cases, families were lied to about where their children were going and why. This can also be attributed to a language barrier, as most Natives did not speak English fluently when the residential schools began to open in the late 1880s. The last American residential school closed in 1967 and the last Canadian school in 1996. Some of these buildings still stand today and were converted into schools for all types of students.
Once the children, aged anywhere from 5 to 18, reached the schools, they were immediately taken inside and stripped naked, showered, sprayed with disinfectant and had their heads shaved. This also posed an issue because the children did not speak anything other than their tribal languages. From the beginning, they were reprimanded, violently, when they spoke their languages, though they knew no English.
The children were subject to typical schooling: English language classes, mathematics, science and religious studies. Their days focused around religious obligations such as morning prayers, Mass and Bible study.
Because these children were considered “savages,” they were treated very differently. Children of all ages were malnourished, beaten, molested and even raped by staff members. In some schools, children were forced into isolation, locked away without an understanding about what was happening. The children who were old enough were given jobs, such as cooking, working in the school infirmary, working the school grounds and the like.
Those who were lucky enough to escape school grounds were sought out, and often died due to the elements, as they could not navigate their way home. A handful did return home, but when they reported to their parents, they weren’t taken seriously and were returned to their school.
The number continues to rise, but it is estimated that 4,118 children died in these schools. The reasons vary: pneumonia, sepsis, scarlet fever, etc. but we cannot be sure if the names and causes of death are accurate. Recent research has shown that most records, if kept at all, contained forgeries. During most of the burials, bodies were dumped in mass graves, or in some cases unmarked graves. Not all of the deceased were lucky enough to have a marked headstone. Most Native communities cannot be sure of their loved ones’ whereabouts without DNA testing.
They were only children, ripped from their home and families and told that they were sinful beings, that being Native is wrong, losing their cultures and languages. Those who did survive deal with immense PTSD.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo, announced an initiative in June 2021 to dive into the dark history of the residential schools. This includes the identification and returning of children to their ancestral homelands. There have been a number of children returned to the descendents, oftentimes cousins or distant relatives. These children were destined to be the next generation of tribal leaders; some were hereditary chiefs, pipe carriers and even medicine people. Forced assimilation removed not only their destinies, but almost wiped Native cultures off the map.
We know you are out there. We see you. We will bring you home.