Commentary: The purpose of residential schools was cultural genocide

By David A. Amour / Washington Post Special

The recent discovery of unmarked mass graves of 1,300 Indigenous children buried in five former residential schools has forced Canada to face a legacy of cultural and physical genocide against Indigenous peoples.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, 150,000 children were separated from their families, languages ​​and cultures and placed in 150 government-funded residential schools. There, the children were subjected to torture, trauma and death to “kill the Indian in the child”. Thousands of children have died; 4,100 according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on Indian Residential Schools, although the actual number may reach 15,000. And one can only imagine the trauma experienced by these children, including those who were forced to bury their classmates and build their coffins.

America’s original sin: The disturbing news from Canada was a reminder that the United States had maintained its own system of 367 Indian residential schools from 1860 to 1978. The systems of the two countries were closely linked, with the United States providing a model that Canada would adopt and emulate.

In response to events in Canada, US Home Secretary Deb Haaland – the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position and a granddaughter of those forced into residential schools – announced an investigation into the residential schools. She noted that most Americans would be alarmed to learn that “the United States also has a habit of removing indigenous children from their families in an attempt to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people.” But, she stressed, “this is a story we must learn from if our country is to recover from this tragic era.”

She’s right. Just as America is forced to fight its legacy of slavery, segregation and systemic racism, the nation must face the genocide of indigenous peoples – who are made almost invisible in society – and the role of settler colonialism. in building the country. Native American genocide, like slavery, is America’s original sin.

Since the earliest days of colonization, the violent clearing of indigenous peoples’ lands – like slavery – has been central to the formation of the country. And, like slavery, Christianity was instrumental in increasing violence against Indigenous communities. Three papal edicts – known together as the Doctrine of Discovery – provided religious justification for the colonial conquest and exploitation of non-Christian peoples and paved the way for the slave trade in West Africa. , slavery and indigenous genocide.

These beliefs permeated the Declaration of Independence, which called the original inhabitants of this land “ruthless Indian savages.” And with American expansion, there was the dispossession of Native Americans, death, forced relocation, and confinement on reservations. In fact, it was a public policy. In 1819, Congress enacted the Civilization Fund Act, which authorized the President “in all cases where he deemed possible the improvement of the habits and condition of these Indians” to “employ capable persons of good character” to initiate the tribes to the “arts of civilization.” In 1824, the Office of Indian Affairs was created to administer the fund, which paid Christian missionaries to “civilize” the Indians.

The creation of residential schools was part of the settlers’ larger colonial project to exterminate Native American culture and separate them from the land through war and violence. The first government-run residential school for Native American children was the Carlisle School, which opened in Pennsylvania in 1879 with the goal of “civilizing” by forcibly assimilating children into white society.

Kill the Indian, save the man: Founded by Civil War veteran General William Henry Platt, who was in charge of Native American prisoners of war, its mission was clear. “A great general said that the only good Indian is a dead man, and the heavy penalty for his destruction was a huge factor in promoting the Indian massacres,” Platt said. “In a way, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this one: that all Indians in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.

Of the 10,000 children who attended Carlisle School until it closed in 1918, more than 180 died from abuse, malnutrition and illnesses associated with unsanitary living conditions. After 100 years, the bodies of 10 of these children were returned to their families in June 2021.

Nevertheless, Carlisle came to serve as a model for other residential schools. Employing Platt’s assimilationist and genocidal philosophy of eliminating Native American culture, these schools adhered to policies requiring children to speak, dress, and behave according to white American values, with a focus on individualism and materialism, private rather than communal property and the monogamous nuclear family structure. The boys received industrial training, while the girls learned life skills at home in regulated environments, suffering in conditions described by the Native American Rights Fund as “somewhere between dungeons and camps. death ”in a 2019 report.

The role of the church: Between one-third and 40 percent of residential schools in the United States were run by Christian denominations. The churches believed that “civilizing” and converting indigenous peoples to Christianity was their only hope of salvation from a “dying” culture. Missionaries viewed Indigenous spirituality as witchcraft and Christianity as the only moral law acceptable to a civilized society.

But, in fact, the residential school system is now recognized as a form of genocide aimed at forcibly removing children from their homes and separating them from their families, culture, clothing and language. Their hair was cut in a humiliating manner. Sadistic missionaries punished them for speaking their mother tongue while washing their mouths with soap, lye, and chlorine. They have been neglected, deprived of food, beaten and raped, sometimes resulting in death; all with the aim of destroying native culture.

And their influence spread across the northern border. Nicholas Flood Davin, the architect of the Canadian Residential School Program, visited Native Residential Schools in the United States in 1879 and was impressed with what he saw, especially the Carlisle School and its solution to the “Indian Problem.” ”Thanks to an“ aggressive civilization ”. »Policy that deconstructs indigenous children.

“The experience of the United States is the same as ours with regard to the adult Indian. You can’t do much with it, ”Davin wrote in his 1879 report to the Canadian government. “We can teach him to do a little farming, and [live]herding and dressing in a more civilized way, but that’s it. The child, again, who goes to day school learns little, and the little he does learn is quickly forgotten, while his tastes are shaped at home, and his aversion inherited. [avoidance] Work [work] is in no way fought [stopped]. “In Canada, residential schools were made compulsory for all First Nations children in 1920.

School doors closed: Most schools ceased operations in the mid-1970s, the last one closing in the late 1990s. With the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007, Canada provided reparations to residential school survivors and apologized.

Lawyers in Canada have called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the Canadian government and the Vatican for alleged crimes against humanity. While the Canadian government has identified 5,300 assailants, none have been charged under federal war crimes and crimes against humanity law. A few priests faced charges of sexual assault, but no manslaughter. Of more than 38,000 residential school abuse reports, there have been fewer than 50 convictions.

The mass graves in Canada are a wake-up call for the United States to seize the opportunity and stand on the right side of human rights. As a country with a long, unresolved and traumatic history of genocide and mass graves, family separation and the erasure of children, America must heal itself with its past in mind.

David A. Love is a Faculty of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, and a Philadelphia-based writer. He writes on issues of race, politics and justice.

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