Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools

Linked with Andrea Smith – USA, and with INCITE – Women of Color Against Violence.

Published on Amnesty Magazine USA, by ANDREA SMITH, not dated (copyright 2007).

U.S. and Canadian authorities took Native children from their homes and tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out them. Now Native Americans are fighting the theft of language, of culture, and of childhood itself …

… 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 …

… 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 system.

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”. (full long text).

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