The Truth Behind U.S. and Canadian Indigenous Boarding Schools
215 bodies of buried Indigenous children were found in a mass grave at a former Canadian assimilation school in 2021
Content warning: murder, colonialization, genocide, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse
In May of 2021, it was announced that over 200 bodies were found in unmarked graves on the property of The Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada or more accurately, on the traditional territory of the Secwepemc. Established in 1890, it was considered one of the largest residential schools in Canada, peaking at 500 students in the 1950s. It was first established as an acculturating Indigenous school. But the school finally closed in 1978.
To those who are aware of these type of schools through history classes and whatnot, the discovery of so many bodies of Indigenous children does not come as a surprise. "Acculturating" was apart of the mentality of colonizers who desired to assimilate Indigenous people into their society. To wit, children were placed in these types of schools to become "white." While barred from practicing their religion, culture, or wearing traditional cloths, children were forcibly taken from their family, tribes, and land to assimilate into America's (or Canada's) beloved idea of all that is good and right: whiteness. They were forced to practice Christianity, speak English, wear the colonizer's common clothes, cut their hair, and abandon all signs of their culture.
But let's start from the beginning.
Native American "boarding schools"
For decades, the US had stolen Native American children from their homes and enrolled them into "boarding schools" across the country. These off-reservation schools were created under the guise of education. But truthfully, these church-run and government-sponsored schools were systematically harnessing their power to strip Indigenous people of their culture, land, and the little power they had left. In truth, education was the blanket that covered over a darker truth of what was happening: genocide.
Despite the US' known effort to dispose of Native American people during this time and before, justified through manifest destiny, the Indigenous population was growing larger during this time. Posing a problem for many colonizers who were expanding their land and ownership of North America, the US government decided to act. But more specifically, General Richard Henry Pratt in 1879 proposed an experiment, claiming to know the solution to their problem. He claimed that through education, Native American people can become "equal" to European values, culture, and people. After compiling "proof" (American propaganda if you prefer) of his theory by taking Indigenous "prisoners of war" and forcing them to learn English, dress "appropriately," and cut their hair, the US government sponsored his next endeavor: to create a mass chain of off-reservation boarding schools for Indigenous children. It began with one of the first establishments made for this purpose in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
This establishment became a blueprint for many more schools that would follow suit on how to hinder the culture of Native Americans; therefore, absconding the soul of many Indigenous people. Eventually, over 350 government-funded and church-run establishments were created. In addition, private establishments began creating similar schools. Often created and owned by religious communities, these establishments continued to grow. These "boarding schools" littered the US continent.
While a tool for destroying an entire group of people's culture, it was primarily another means to separating these children from their land. Slowly, as these children were forcibly taken from their homes, war, reformed policies, and broken treaties began amassing. The US continued to mark its territory as Indigenous populations dwindled in size due to these schools. To further solidify the claiming of land, schools taught the students English, math, science, religion, and art. In other words, these schools sought to "civilize" Indigenous children. They forcibly cut their hair, which was incredibly traumatizing for Native American people, and restricted them from speaking their own languages; most students were physically punished if non-compliant with this specific rule. In addition, traditional Native food was banned and these children were forced to celebrate and participate in Euro-centric traditions like Columbus Day. If that isn't insulting enough, on Memorial Day, some children were forced to decorate the graves of soldiers who were the previous murderers of their ancestors, mothers, and fathers. Further assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-centric culture, young women were forced to take cooking classes and they also cleaned, sewed, and did laundry for the entire institution.
These schools functioned under the protection of the government. From that estimation alone, the government unsurprisingly sanctioned the death and physical punishment inflicted on these children. Many Indigenous children were severely beaten and punished for not complying with regulations. Sometimes, they even restricted their food. While coping with these severe punishments, children at these schools were also dying from diseases. Some were sexually and mentally abused, others performed forced manual labor, and many died while these schools abstained from recording the number of deaths.
"Kill the Indian and save the man"
Richard Henry Pratt was famously quoted saying, "Kill the Indian, save the man" in reference to his desire to establish these schools. His colonizer mindset helped murder an unknown amount of children who lived on these properties. He even collected some Indigenous students to live with white families during the summer. It began with about 10,000 children enrolled into these schools in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, this number tripled.
Despite many people claiming that Native Americans were compliant to these regulations and new schools, this was not always the case. Native Americans have always fought for their land and have always resisted American colonialism and European imperialism. Upon the advent of children being stolen from their land and placed into these schools, families would camp outside of the property just to be close enough to their child. Sometimes, entire tribes and villages refused to enroll their children into the school system. Children regularly escaped or attempted to leave. Some secretly held their culture close to their chest, somehow keeping their culture alive without the knowledge of their oppressors (teachers, pastors, etc.). But reservation agents restricted their rations in response or utilized agency police to forcibly take these children from their families. Some were even incarcerated and placed in prison for being non-compliant with the forced removal of their own children. And despite the Civilization Fund Act of 1819, requiring permission to enroll Native students, most children were forcibly taken anyways. The justification for stealing children were as such:
"The parents of these Indian children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education… Parental authority is hardly known or exercised among the Indians in this agency. The agent should be endowed with some kind of authority to enforce attendance. The agent here has found that a threat to depose a captain if he does not make the children attend school has had a good effect." - John S. Ward, a United States Indian Agent
Many claimed that Native parenting practices were inferior to white family values. In 1891, the government finalized the legality of forcibly taking Native children from their homes. This was not reformed until 1976 when the Indian Child Welfare Act took place and when many Indigenous activist began protesting these "schools." But the US still found ways to assimilate Native people.
The Indian Adoption Project
This began as a pilot project with one goal: assimilate Native children into non-Native, white families. In essence, this was a continuation of the "boarding school" era. Utilizing the same practices as with the schools like creating American propaganda, many children were forcibly taken from their homes and reservations with feigned excuses as to why a Native parent was unfit to have their child. This idea became accentuated upon the discovery that the adoption program was cheaper than boarding schools. While the federal government continued creating propaganda, claiming that Native children were "unwanted," many white families began the process of adoption. But as propaganda convinced the public that these were discarded children, this was vehemently untrue. There are many people alive today who can attest to being forcibly taken from their homes or they recall incidents of being hidden upon a social worker visit. While social workers listed reasons like "poverty" and "overcrowded" housing as justification for removing children, many Native people traditionally lived with extended family. Being close to your land and family members was part of their culture and identity. Not to mention, most Native families were poor due to the reservations they were forced upon by the same US government that were trying to steal their children.
By the 1960s, one and four Indigenous children were living apart from their families. And many of these children were living in adopted or foster-care homes that physically, sexually, and mentally abused them. Many studies attribute these series of events to the statistically high rates of substance abuse among Native people. With that being said, Native people suffer from intergenerational trauma, economic disadvantage, high rates of sexual abuse among women (mostly perpetrated by non-Native men), and many Native people do not have appropriate access to medial services and insurance.
With the government irresponsibly claiming that Native people are enjoying and successfully living in their new homes, Indigenous people began fighting back against non-truths. This is when the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed, giving Native American people more agency in the US government and in courtrooms. This act was designed to keep Indigenous children with Indigenous people or with extended Indigenous families. But the problem still exists. Native American children are 4x more likely to be placed into foster care than a white child with worse or the same circumstances. With ICWA, many have been fighting this statistic despite a wide-spread protest from white families that say this act should be dismantled and rendered useless. While this doesn't come as a surprise with all the history of Native American people and the US government and its people and religious practices, there is still work to be done. There are still silenced mouths aching for an opportunity to be heard. Better yet, most Indigenous people are not waiting to be heard anymore. Their fight to preserve their land, people, and culture can be seen and heard around the world despite the insistence of conglomerates and the US government to continue to treat the Native people of North America as second-class citizens on land that was stolen through murder, colonization, and the theft of Native children.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School
With history as your context, the discovery of so many bodies on the grounds of this school is not a surprise. In truth, there are still bodies on these grounds without proper burials. There are still deceased Native children under the feet of the US government and military buildings that were formerly known as "boarding schools."
They should be returned to their land and people.
The US government (and Canadian government) participated (and still do) in the cultural, spiritual, physical, and emotional colonization of Native American people. And the result is mass graves found on government property. But their murders are not forgotten by their people. Their suffering is not forgotten by their family. Colonization and imperialism may have its teeth in Indigenous people's land of North America, New Zealand, Hawai'i, Australia, the Philippines, and many more, but Indigenous people are strong. They showcase this in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Native Hawaiians blocking the access road to Mauna Kea, Whanganui tribes attempting to save the historic Pākaitore with occupation, and many more. Their resistance is not just heroic but an attempt to save the lives, culture, and land of their children and those to come; it's desperation.
So when you speak of the lives lost at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and more, don't call it "history." Don't claim it is in the past and don't let others say it either. This is not history nor is it an isolated, unheard of incident. It is common. It is genocide. And it still exists in disguised forms of economic disparity, ecological imbalance, systemic racism, medical bias, land occupation, sex-trade, patriarchal values, the Prison Industrial Complex, and much more.
Instead, speak of them as though it had happened yesterday because Indigenous people are still grieving, dying, and resisting.