01 November 2004


No People should have to bear the burden of such deep pain.


Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools

Andrea Smith (Cherokee) is interim coordinator for the Boarding
School Healing Project and a Bunche Fellow coordinating AIUSA's
research project on Sexual Violence and American Indian women.

A little while ago, I was supposed to attend a Halloween party. I
decided to dress as a nun because nuns were the scariest things I
ever saw," says Willetta Dolphus, 54, a Cheyenne River Lakota. The
source of her fear, still vivid decades later, was her childhood
experience at American Indian boarding schools in South Dakota.

Dolphus is one of more than 100,000 Native Americans forced by the
U.S. government to attend Christian schools. The system, which began
with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 "Peace Policy," continued well
into the 20th century. Church officials, missionaries, and local
authorities took children as young as five from their parents and
shipped them off to Christian boarding schools; they forced others
to enroll in Christian day schools on reservations. Those sent to
boarding school were separated from their families for most of the
year, sometimes without a single family visit. Parents caught trying
to hide their children lost food rations.

Virtually imprisoned in the schools, children experienced a
devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and grueling
labor to widespread sexual and physical abuse. Scholars and
activists have only begun to analyze what Joseph Gone (Gros Ventre),
a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,
calls "the cumulative effects of these historical experiences across
gender and generation upon tribal communities today."

"Native America knows all too well the reality of the boarding
schools," writes Native American Bar Association President Richard
Monette, who attended a North Dakota boarding school, "where recent
generations learned the fine art of standing in line single-file for
hours without moving a hair, as a lesson in discipline; where our
best and brightest earned graduation certificates for homemaking and
masonry; where the sharp rules of immaculate living were instilled
through blistered hands and knees on the floor with scouring
toothbrushes; where mouths were scrubbed with lye and chlorine
solutions for uttering Native words."

Sammy Toineeta (Lakota) helped found the national Boarding School
Healing Project to document such abuses. "Human rights activists
must talk about the issue of boarding schools," says Toineeta. "It
is one of the grossest human rights violations because it targeted
children and was the tool for perpetrating cultural genocide. To
ignore this issue would be to ignore the human rights of indigenous
peoples, not only in the U.S., but around the world."

The schools were part of Euro-America's drive to solve the "Indian
problem" and end Native control of their lands. While some
colonizers advocated outright physical extermination, Captain
Richard H. Pratt thought it wiser to "Kill the Indian and save the
man." In 1879 Pratt, an army veteran of the Indian wars, opened the
first federally sanctioned boarding school: the Carlisle Industrial
Training School, in Carlisle, Penn.

"Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of
civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and
habit," said Pratt. He modeled Carlisle on a prison school he had
developed for a group of 72 Indian prisoners of war at Florida's
Fort Marion prison. His philosophy was to "elevate" American Indians
to white standards through a process of forced acculturation that
stripped them of their language, culture, and customs.

Government officials found the Carlisle model an appealing
alternative to the costly military campaigns against Indians in the
West. Within three decades of Carlisle's opening, nearly 500 schools
extended all the way to California. The Bureau of Indian Affairs
(BIA) controlled 25 off-reservation boarding schools while churches
ran 460 boarding and day schools on reservations with government

Both BIA and church schools ran on bare-bones budgets, and large
numbers of students died from starvation and disease because of
inadequate food and medical care. School officials routinely forced
children to do arduous work to raise money for staff salaries
and "leased out" students during the summers to farm or work as
domestics for white families. In addition to bringing in income, the
hard labor prepared children to take their place in white society—
the only one open to them—on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic

Physical hardship, however, was merely the backdrop to a systematic
assault on Native culture. School staff sheared children's hair,
banned traditional clothing and customs, and forced children to
worship as Christians. Eliminating Native languages—considered an
obstacle to the "acculturation" process—was a top priority, and
teachers devised an extensive repertoire of punishments for
uncooperative children. "I was forced to eat an entire bar of soap
for speaking my language," says AIUSA activist Byron Wesley (Navajo).

The loss of language cut deep into the heart of the Native
community. Recent efforts to restore Native languages hint at what
was lost. Mona Recountre, of the South Dakota Crow Creek
reservation, says that when her reservation began a Native language
immersion program at its elementary school, social relationships
within the school changed radically and teachers saw a decline in
disciplinary problems. Recountre's explanation is that the Dakota
language creates community and respect by emphasizing kinship and
relationships. The children now call their teachers "uncle"
or "auntie" and "don't think of them as authority figures," says
Recountre. "It's a form of respect, and it's a form of

Native scholars describe the destruction of their culture as a "soul
wound," from which Native Americans have not healed. Embedded deep
within that wound is a pattern of sexual and physical abuse that
began in the early years of the boarding school system. Joseph Gone
describes a history of "unmonitored and unchecked physical and
sexual aggression perpetrated by school officials against a
vulnerable and institutionalized population." Gone is one of many
scholars contributing research to the Boarding School Healing

Rampant sexual abuse at reservation schools continued until the end
of the 1980s, in part because of pre-1990 loopholes in state and
federal law mandating the reporting of allegations of child sexual
abuse. In 1987 the FBI found evidence that John Boone, a teacher at
the BIA-run Hopi day school in Arizona, had sexually abused as many
as 142 boys from 1979 until his arrest in 1987. The principal failed
to investigate a single abuse allegation. Boone, one of several BIA
schoolteachers caught molesting children on reservations in the late
1980s, was convicted of child abuse, and he received a life
sentence. Acting BIA chief William Ragsdale admitted that the agency
had not been sufficiently responsive to allegations of sexual abuse,
and he apologized to the Hopi tribe and others whose children BIA
employees had abused.

The effects of the widespread sexual abuse in the schools continue
to ricochet through Native communities today. "We know that
experiences of such violence are clearly correlated with
posttraumatic reactions including social and psychological
disruptions and breakdowns," says Gone.

Dolphus, now director of the South Dakota Coalition Against Sexual
and Domestic Violence, sees boarding school policies as the central
route through which sexual abuse became entrenched in Native
communities, as many victims became molesters themselves. Hopi tribe
members testified at a 1989 Senate hearing that some of Boone's
victims had become sex abusers; others had become suicidal or

The abuse has dealt repeated blows to the traditional social
structure of Indian communities. Before colonization, Native women
generally enjoyed high status, according to scholars, and violence
against women, children, and elders was virtually non-existent.
Today, sexual abuse and violence have reached epidemic proportions
in Native communities, along with alcoholism and suicide. By the end
of the 1990s, the sexual assault rate among Native Americans was
three-and-a-half times higher than for any other ethnic group in the
U.S., according to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice
Statistics. Alcoholism in Native communities is currently six times
higher than the national average. Researchers are just beginning to
establish quantitative links between these epidemic rates and the
legacy of boarding schools.

A more complete history of the abuses endured by Native American
children exists in the accounts of survivors of
Canadian "residential schools." Canada imported the U.S. boarding
school model in the 1880s and maintained it well into the 1970s—four
decades after the United States ended its stated policy of forced
enrollment. Abuses in Canadian schools are much better documented
because survivors of Canadian schools are more numerous, younger,
and generally more willing to talk about their experiences.

A 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada
documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the
United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the
federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 Native children
in the Canadian residential school system.

The report says church officials killed children by beating,
poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-
zero cold while naked, and medical experimentation, including the
removal of organs and radiation exposure. In 1928 Alberta passed
legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize Native
girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate
toll of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed
records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But
according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized
entire groups of Native children when they reached puberty. The
report also says that Canadian clergy, police, and business and
government officials "rented out" children from residential schools
to pedophile rings.

The consequences of sexual abuse can be devastating. "Of the first
29 men who publicly disclosed sexual abuse in Canadian residential
schools, 22 committed suicide," says Gerry Oleman, a counselor to
residential school survivors in British Columbia.

Randy Fred (Tsehaht First Nation), a 47-year-old survivor, told the
British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society, "We were
kids when we were raped and victimized. All the plaintiffs I've
talked with have attempted suicide. I attempted suicide twice, when
I was 19 and again when I was 20. We all suffered from alcohol
abuse, drug abuse. Looking at the lists of students [abused in the
school], at least half the guys are dead."

The Truth Commission report says that the grounds of several schools
contain unmarked graveyards of murdered school children, including
babies born to Native girls raped by priests and other church
officials in the school. Thousands of survivors and relatives have
filed lawsuits against Canadian churches and governments since the
1990s, with the costs of settlements estimated at more than $1
billion. Many cases are still working their way through the court

While some Canadian churches have launched reconciliation programs,
U.S. churches have been largely silent. Natives of this country have
also been less aggressive in pursuing lawsuits. Attorney Tonya
Gonnella-Frichner (Onondaga) says that the combination of statutes
of limitations, lack of documentation, and the conservative makeup
of the current U.S. Supreme Court make lawsuits a difficult and
risky strategy.

Nonetheless, six members of the Sioux Nation who say they were
physically and sexually abused in government-run boarding schools
filed a class-action lawsuit this April against the United States
for $25 billion on behalf of hundreds of thousands of mistreated
Native Americans. Sherwyn Zephier was a student at a school run from
1948 to 1975 by St. Paul's Catholic Church in Marty, S.D.: "I was
tortured in the middle of the night. They would whip us with boards
and sometimes with straps," he recalled in Los Angeles at an April
press conference to launch the suit.

Adele Zephier, Sherwyn's sister, said, "I was molested there by a
priest and watched other girls" and then broke down crying. Lawyers
have interviewed nearly 1,000 alleged victims in South Dakota alone.

Native activists within church denominations are also pushing for
resolutions that address boarding school abuses. This July the first
such resolution will go before the United Church of Christ,
demanding that the church begin a process of reconciliation with
Native communities. Activists also point out that while the mass
abductions ended with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA),
doctors, lawyers, and social workers were still removing thousands
of children from their families well into the 1970s. Even
today, "Indian parents continue to consent to adoptions after being
persuaded by `professionals' who promise that their child will fare
better in a white, middle-class family," according to a report by
Lisa Poupart for the Crime and Social Justice Associates.

Although there is disagreement in Native communities about how to
approach the past, most agree that the first step is documentation.
It is crucial that this history be exposed, says Dolphus. "When the
elders who were abused in these schools have the chance to heal,
then the younger generation will begin to heal too."

Members of the Boarding School Healing Project say that current
levels of violence and dysfunction in Native communities result from
human rights abuses perpetrated by state policy. In addition to
setting up hotlines and healing services for survivors, this broad
coalition is using a human rights framework to demand accountability
from Washington and churches.

While this project is Herculean in its scope, its success could be
critical to the healing of indigenous nations from both contemporary
and historical human rights abuses. Native communities, the
project's founders hope, will begin to view the abuse as the
consequence of human rights violations perpetrated by church and
state rather than as an issue of community dysfunction and
individual failings. And for individuals, overcoming the silence and
the stigma of abuse in Native communities can lead to
breakthroughs: "There was an experience that caused me to be
damaged," said boarding school survivor Sammy Toineeta. "I finally
realized that there wasn't something wrong with me."


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