In April 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. The report was probably prompted by several year’s ago Canadian report on First Peoples boarding schools, and by the appointment of the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. The Canadian report was issues by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in 2015.
The U.S. report has much interesting information on cultural eradication. Native American children were forced from their families and into schools that were little better than prisons, beginning in the early years of the American Republic. Esteemed Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin expressed anti-Indian beliefs. Interestingly, these sentiments were sometimes expressed in confidential memos to Congress, as if it was known even then that the actions were morally reprehensible.
In the boarding schools, the Native American children were forced to give up their native dress, grooming, languages, tribal identities, and customs. These are referred to as identity-alteration methodologies. This is not dissimilar from the way African slaves were ripped out of their cultural context as part of the slave culture in the Americas. The boarding schools were part of a conscious effort by the U.S. Government to break up Indian tribes and assimilate members into 18th and 19th century European-American values, including manual labor and agriculture.
The report does not note that child labor was common in the U.S. at the time, and that working conditions were poor. In such respects, the report lacks context. For example, in 1830, about 55% of white children aged 5 to 14 were enrolled in public schools; by 1870, this had risen to about 78%. The report also does not note the poor treatment of African-Americans, who did not experience the end of slavery until 1866. While I don’t like the calculus of suffering, it is nevertheless worthwhile to discuss events in their historical context. The temptation today is to judge everything by present standards. It is notable that the report does not use currently popular progressive terms like settler colonialism and imperialism. This is another indicator that the report is judiciously written, and not simply another example of self-flagellation.
The report includes interesting information on the use of and funding of religious institutions by the federal government. Exceptions to the Constitutional separation of church and state were made openly. This is an example of fast and loose interpretation of the Constitution to fit expedient purposes, not dissimilar from Justice Alito’s interpretation of the right to abortion. The effects extend into the present day, with some current adults still the victims of the trauma they experienced in the schools. For example, in the 1970’s I worked on an investigation of the Bakersfield public schools, in which we found that there were white, Indian, Mexican, and Negro schools.
This is not to claim that all of the Indians had clean hands. For example, some members of the Five Civilized Tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Seminole Nation, had enslaved people before the United States forced the removal of the Tribes to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Some of these Tribes fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and continued to hold enslaved people in the Indian Territory until 1866 when they were forced to sign treaties with the U.S. that required the Tribes to free their enslaved people and make them members of the Tribes. Some of the Tribes resisted such required membership and as late as 20 years ago the Cherokee of Oklahoma tried to disenroll the Black Cherokee members. Other tribes warred on European-American settlers, often engaging in brutal practices. One can say that this was defensive warfare against an invader. Still other tribes warred on each other for hundreds or thousands of years, and such inter-tribal warfare was exacerbated by tribes being pushed out of their home territory by European settlers, and being forced into the territory of other tribes.
Interestingly, the report does not mention reparations or remedies. The possibility of reparations to African-Americans is a current concern in many places, including California, where there is a state government task force studying the subject. One can wonder why this subject is not covered in the recommendations. It might be because the investigative effort is not considered complete, or for political reasons such as the unpopularity of reparations among many whites. There is also no recommendation for apology by religious and governmental institutions that perpetuated the boarding school system. This differs from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided redress for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II. That Act included an apology on behalf of the people of the U.S.
There are many interesting facts in the report, particularly about Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives. An interesting point is made about Alaska that when the Russian government owned it, it treated Alaska natives much better than the United States did.
The report portrays the boarding schools as an instrument to help steal land from the First Peoples of the US and Hawaii. It makes a strong case, although the emphasis on assimilation as something bad is an example of revisionism. On the other hand, from the perspective of many of the Tribes, assimilation, even under different names, was probably considered something undesirable. The report is replete with tragedies, such as forcing Indian children into the boarding schools to meet quotas, and physical punishment. The report’s coverage of treatment of human remains is nuanced, and respects different Tribes’ preferences. The issue of not disclosing the location of sacred and burial sites is important.
The Canadian report is far harsher in tone, and doesn’t sound so much like it was written by bureaucrats. The U.S. report is legalistic, at least in its cites and sources, and, oddly, does not reflect the considerable scholarship that has grown around the topic. I came across many of these sources in researching my unpublished paper on the Native American genocide (available upon request). That paper was intended to be included in a book on holocausts. My bottom line was that the treatment of the native peoples of what became the United States was indeed genocidal, from a physical and cultural perspective. However, the topic is extremely controversial, with some people, particularly in the Jewish community, believing that the harshest terms should be reserved for the Nazi Holocaust. The existence of the controversy points out the importance of Pres. Biden referring to Russian actions in Ukraine as war crimes.
The term “genocide” has indeed been loosely used in recent years, including in regard to treatment of Palestinians by Israel. However, there are more Palestinians now than there were in 1948. With Native Americans however, it has been estimated that there may have been as many as 60 million in North America prior to the European invasion. That number seems very high, but a more realistic number is still much higher than the present population, although the present numbers are in recovery.
The report does not include what if any positive results there might have been from the boarding school system. Perhaps such positive results were few and outliers, such as the famous athlete Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Tribal member and a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The report also does not include the very substantial contributions of Native American men to the U.S. military. But then there’s no need for such a report to do so.
It can be noted that the issuance of this report does not mean the end of anti-Indian sentiment in parts of the U.S. For example, there is a strong anti-sovereignty movement, especially in the American West, of people who oppose tribal power. Some tribes and tribal members also find substantial feeling against their rights, for example in efforts within the last decade to build oil pipelines through and near Indian Country.
Photo by Gil Cayetano-unsplash
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