Owens OutComm Student Media

Owens OutComm Student Media

Owens OutComm Student Media

An Examination: Indian Boarding Schools

Re-education schools built for the sole purpose of “reforming” Indigenous Children
Pelton, Herbert W.
“Indian School, Cherokee, N.C.” Retrieved through the Library of Congress.

The Words We Use

The words we use to describe people are important. Think of the media you watch, where you get your news and current events from. When the news anchor or pundit speaks of the issues which are important to you, events and people that makes you angry or afraid, what kinds of words do they use? 

What is your first reaction to the word “thug,” or “animal”? When you think of a criminal what image pops into your mind? What events and topics do you think of when you read the words “horde,” “predators,” or “groomers”? Can you think of a time when you’ve heard others use those words to describe groups of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime? When you heard or read those words, was your gut reaction that they were accurate or justified or were you appalled or indifferent? Some of the words used to describe Indigenous or Native Americans over the last few hundred years have been “savage” and “barbarians,” what do you imagine when you read those words? 

The above words all have something in common; they are negative descriptors we use to describe people we want to view as less than us, less than human. It gives us an excuse to think poorly of them or even violently. These words are not an accident, they are used deliberately by those in the media and in positions of power to influence our opinions and beliefs, so we can find the persecution of those groups more palatable. 

The Rhetoric We Wreak

During a speech by Richard Henry Pratt in 1892, Pratt proudly declared “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” This rhetoric made by a powerful military officer was used to embolden an effort started in 1819 by the United States Congress by the passing of the Civilization Fund Act, a piece of legislation written to provide funding for re-education schools built for the sole purpose of “reforming” the “savage” Indian children into “proper” Catholic members of white European society. By the 1960’s, over 500 boarding schools were built and over 60,000 Native American children were “re-educated” and worse. 

The Business of Genocide

By the time these boarding schools became more prominent, Native American land was being, and had been, taken by force through the efforts of the United States government and its benefactors. Events like Trail of Tears had displaced and ethnically cleansed Native Peoples from most of their lands. Prospective farmers who lacked inherited land in Europe were moved onto stolen land to work the territory. Eventually, after the Civil War, The Indian Removal Act was used to further displace Native Americans. This resulted in The Long Walk of the Navajo and other forced displacements. A continuation of the ongoing genocide meant to expand the territory of the United States and enrich those who took their place. 

The wealth of land and resources once owned by the Native Peoples were seized by the leaders of the United States government. Their people were ethnically and physically cleansed from their homes, forced into generations of poverty, and their children sent to the re-education camps we know today as Indian Boarding Schools. 

It is the result of colonialism, of the rich and powerful using their position in society to oppress and subjugate. It is the rhetoric they weave into the media to fool people into believing that those who look and sound different from them are dangerous, subhuman, or savage. 

The Fear of Unity

What do you believe? Do you think the Native Americans were dangerous savages who preyed on women and children? Or, is it more likely that the Native Americans were and are just like everyone else? Working towards bettering their lives and the lives of their families. After all, what do any of us strive for if not stability and prosperity? Are your goals and dreams really that different from the goals and dreams of the everyday person you find anywhere else in your community? Who stands to gain from the othering rhetoric used to dehumanize entire groups of people? 

Would the United States government have been able to ethnically cleanse and forcibly relocate Native Americans Peoples if they were viewed as equals to white Europeans? Do you think the ones who inflict the will of our leaders onto the everyday person view that person as an equal? Genocide is a tool used by those in power to seize more power from both the elimination of a group they “otherize” and through gaining support of the everyday person by turning them against the “other.” What does it take to convince someone to victimize their neighbor? It’s in the words we use to “otherize” them. 

The Resistance 

Native American children in these boarding schools did not suffer in silence, they resisted efforts by the church and US government to convert them by staging hunger strikes, escaping, or even using Plains Sign Talk, a form of sign language used by the Native American nations. Sarah Klotz of The Conversation wrote a great article called “How Native Students Fought Back Against Abuse and Assimilation as US Boarding Schools” on these children’s resistance (2021). The children in the Indian Boarding Schools resisted the will of both the church and state to preserve their culture and identities.

The Struggle

Indian Boarding Schools are genocide; native children were taken from their homes and sent hundreds of miles away to these re-education camps. Dozens of unmarked graves have been found at the sites of these schools, as reported by Reuters in 2022, These actions were sanctioned by the United States government and allowed to run up until the 1960’s. 

27% of Native Americans live in poverty, which soars even higher on reservations where unemployment rates reach 50%. This is a direct result of the systematic genocide of the Native Americans by the United States government. 

Genocide is not something left to the annals of history; there are genocides happening today. Genocide Watch is a helpful resource to stay educated and aware of the ongoing efforts by governments around the world who inflict these atrocities. 

There is no one and done fight to end all genocide. Human history is plagued by countless events of mass killings and ethnocide. It is the inherent struggle between the state’s desire for power and the people’s right to autonomy. We must always be aware of current events and the language we use to “otherize” the people in our lives.  

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