The Indian Industrial or Boarding Schools

msteward
Today, at the Hiawatha Asylum, there are 121 unmarked graves of the Indiuan children who never left that place.

By Don & Diane Wells
Part 1 & 2 of this series told of the US policy to remove the Indian children from their homes and take them far away to Indian schools in order to assimilate them into the “white” world. Part 3 will explain what happened to these children, which was one part of the destruction of their culture.

Remember taking your children to their first day of preschool or kindergarten and seeing the tears and anxiety on their faces when, even though you had explained it to them, they were left in a strange environment?  

For your children, the anxiety did not last long as they were assured by their teachers that their parents would be back to get them before the day had ended.  Now imagine the anxiety and fright of the Indian children when they were snatched away from their families and homes, taken far, far away to a foreign and frightening place where authority figures, who were often cruel, spoke a language the children could not understand, and were not replaced at the end of the day by beloved parents.  

Their anxiety and fright must have reached levels incomprehensible to us. For a minimum of three years these children were kept away from their homes and families. Many of them because of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse never returned home, but remain buried in shallow graves on the school grounds.

“ . . . jerked away from home and family”
The traumas experienced by the Indian children began with being jerked suddenly away from home and family, forced onto trains, cars, or planes which most had never seen before, and  taken away to a strange physical and geographical world. Not knowing what was happening to them or why caused a most grievous physiological scar on their soul. These actions by themselves would have traumatized any child; but, it did not end there. When the children got to their destination, the authorities separated them, placed them in different dormitories, demanded that they remove their clothes and hand over any items they had managed to bring from home. The children who spoke only their native languages did not understand the instructions. The school teachers who assumed the children were being deliberately disobedient would tear the children’s’ clothes off of them. The children were then scrubbed with stiff brushes and, using alcohol, kerosene, and sometimes DDT were disinfected from “tribal diseases.” We have all felt the pain from putting alcohol on an open sore. Imagine what it was like for these children after the stiff brushes had abraded their bodies!

“ . . .killing their Indian identity”
Having been “cleaned” they were given strange feeling uniforms that bore no resemblance to their tribal clothing to put on. Next, their hair was cut. So what? You might ask. For them their long black hair was and still is a part of their spiritual identity. Cutting their hair was a big step toward killing their Indian identity. This was reinforced by giving each child a new English name or, in some cases, they were further dehumanized by just giving them a number!  For many months after arriving at the school, weeping and wailing could be heard from the dormitory at night as these children tried to understand what was happening to them. Eventually most became accustomed to their new environment but never to their treatment.

The objective of the Indian Industrial and Reservation Boarding Schools was to beat the language and customs out of the children so that they would become more “white.”  For most of the children, it was an experience hard to imagine.

Jerry Wolfe, Elder, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian told us about often being beaten with a belt for speaking his native language. The personal accounts and written stories about this historical tragedy in our American history will break your heart. Many who attended these schools lost the ability to speak their language or to understand their tribal customs. When they returned to the reservations they did not fit in. They were no longer an Indian but they were not accepted in the “white community” either. They had lost their identity and were forever stuck in no man’s land. Many resorted to alcoholism and drugs and their lives became a national tragedy.

Children victimized
Loss of tribal identity was horrible. But, individually, that was not the worst thing that happened to some of these children. With little control and oversight in the school, teachers who were pedophiles or at least had tendency toward this behavior were hired by the schools. With lack of security for the children at night, these despicable people entered the dormitories and forced themselves on the children. This behavior frequently lasted over long periods of time. If the physiological scar was not bad enough, these actions just deepened the wounds and caused irreparable harm to the Indian children.

121 unmarked graves
In every race, there are some with mental illness or who learn more slowly than others. The Indian children were no different. Some could not comprehend what was happening to them and could not adjust. Teachers who did not understand or recognize their problems treated them cruelly. These children were assumed to be disobedient and were locked in closets or basements for days at a time. They were beaten and ostracized from the others. Finally, many of these children were sent to the Hiawatha Asylum for Indian Children at Canton, SD where they were treated even worse. For more information about this atrocity read Kent Neuburn’s book, “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo’s”. In the book is a personal account by Mary Johnson, an Anishinaabe Indian. Today, at the Hiawatha Asylum, there are 121 unmarked graves of the Indian children who never left that place.

Resources for this article include:  

  • “Wild Indians: Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians,” by Pemina Yellow Bird
  • “American Indian Boarding Schools. An Exploration of Global Ethnic and Racial Cleansing,” 2011 Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways
  • “Boarding School: Historical Trauma among Alaska’s Native People,” National Resource Center for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Elders.
  • “Indian Boarding Schools in Comparative Perspective: The Removal of Indigenous Children in the United States and Australia, 1880-1940,” University of Nebraska

If you want to learn more about the impact of the Indian Schools on the Indians as told by a Lakota Sioux elder, read Kent Neuburn's series of books entitled,  “Neither Wolf nor Dog,” “The Wolf at Twilight,” and “The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo.”

Next month, the last part of this series will tell the story of the Wrangell Institute Boarding School in Alaska.

 

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