Abused Native American children: graves dug near boarding schools

Abe Lincoln, son of Antelope, Cheyenne, January 17, 1880. Dora, daughter of Brave Bull, Sioux, April 21, 1888. Kate Rosskedewitz, Wichita, January 10, 1882. By the main road, dozens of small white tombstones. Nearby, a sign hangs in yellow grass reminding us that the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, “a model of the federal system of boarding schools designed to accommodate American Indians into the mainstream culture,” welcomed more than 10,000 Native children between 1879 and 1918. We are in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“Despite its idyllic beginnings, the school has left a mixed and lasting legacy, creating opportunity for some students and conflicting identities for others. This cemetery has 186 graves of students who died while living in Carlisle.” What exactly did these children die for? Nobody really knows. Most of them died of tuberculosis and were buried promptly to avoid infection. But abuse was also widespread. The White Tombs have not yet revealed all their secrets.

Subject to military discipline

Some speak of a “politics of forced assimilation.” Others of “cultural genocide”. The 106-page report unveiled May 11 by Secretary of State for Home Affairs Deb Haaland on Native American boarding schools opens a painful page in American history.

Between 1819 and 1969, thousands of Native American, Alaskan, and Hawaiian children were forcibly placed in schools or religious institutions operated by the federal government. Significantly in Carlisle, the first boarding school of its kind was established from a reserve. The report identifies the dual goal of “cultural assimilation and plunder of indigenous peoples’ lands through the forced removal and relocation of their children.” This policy had a name: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Also read our editorial: Native American Children’s Cemeteries: Learning about the Unspeakable

The children were taken from their families. Some have experienced physical and sometimes sexual violence. They were subjected to military discipline, deprived of food and punished when they did not speak English. One of the first things we did for them was to cut their hair. They were cut off from everything that brought them back to their culture and identity. Starting with their names. The elderly were forced to punish the young, according to investigation reports.

“The consequences of federal policies for residential schools — including intergenerational trauma caused by family separation and cultural elimination for generations of children as young as 4 — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Deb Haaland, presenting the report. According to the Healing Coalition of Native American Boarding Schools, these boarding schools had about 20,000 children in 1900. By 1925, the number had more than tripled.

Read: Boarding schools for Native American children: the United States launched an investigation

53 burial sites

Deb Haaland, the first Native American to be appointed as a minister in the United States, launched the investigation in June 2021 After the shocking discoveries of hundreds of unmarked burials of Aboriginal children In Canada, close to institutions run by the Catholic Church (215 in British Columbia, 750 in Saskatchewan). Thousands of children were reportedly buried anonymously without their families being informed.

The United States did not recognize. But the extent of the phenomenon is still difficult to determine. The first volume of the survey that Secretary Joe Biden initially unveiled identified 408 schools in 37 states that were part of the “federal Indian residential school system,” including 21 in Alaska and seven in Hawaii. It is now up to investigators to check whether the graves are located near these former boarding schools and to identify any human remains. They have so far identified 53 burial sites, anonymous or not, and established that “at least 500 Native American, Alaskan or Hawaiian children” died in these boarding schools.

But the investigation, while solid and broad, will remain partial: it can only address institutions that were under federal jurisdiction. The mystery of the return of remains claimed by certain tribes will arise very quickly, with shocking discoveries. For Brian Newland, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, authorities expect to discover “thousands or tens of thousands” of victims of forced assimilation.

With willow branch

This first report comes as Pope Francis has announced that he intends to visit Canada from July 24-30, to repeat his apology on behalf of the Catholic Church. The Canadian government has decided to create a $31.5 billion fund to compensate the wounded and strengthen the child protection system.

Native Americans also testified before the US Congress. This is the case of Matthew War Bonet, 76, of Lakota who was forced to attend St. Francis Boarding School, in South Dakota, with his nine brothers and sisters. He was 6 years old then. “I remember when I got to school the priests took us to this big room with six or eight basins. A priest put us all in the same basin, and he scrubbed us hard with a big brush. The brushes made the skin on the buttocks raw. Then our long hair was clipped.”

Corporal punishment was frequent. Priests often got impatient and punished us by beating us with a leather belt or a willow bough,” he added, embarrassed by the testimony. Matthew War Bonet insists on the long-term trauma caused. He notes that many of his former comrades who were victims of violence have drunk alcohol or become violent.

In an army compound

Depp Haaland hails from the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico on her mother’s side, and is well aware of the effects of forced assimilation. She lived in her family. His grandparents were forcibly placed in boarding schools for “America”.

Going forward, the minister hopes to encourage survivors to talk about and overcome their traumas. Above all, it promised to support and revitalize tribal languages ​​and cultural practices, she says, “to thwart two centuries of federal policies aimed at their destruction.” The healing process promises to be long and intense. Which will arrive very late.

In Carlisle, access to the Native American Children’s Cemetery is not possible without special permission. Because, paradoxically, if the school set up in a former military barracks logically depended on the Ministry of the Interior until its closure in 1918, the cemeteries are now again located in a US Army compound.

Some graves are empty. The remains of nine children were returned in July 2021 to the Sioux community in Rosebud, South Dakota, to which they had belonged. Susan D. said: Six more remains are scheduled to be exhumed on June 17. Some Native American states want to bring their children home; Others want their remains intact in the cemetery.”

She welcomes Deb Haaland’s report, “which pays serious attention to a long history of individual and collective trauma among Native Americans.” Rose Professor of Sociology Susan D. She is also the co-director of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, which does an impressive job of digitizing the archives (300,000 documents since 2013) and searching for the 234 students who died while staying at the boarding school, including the 186 students who are buried there.

We know, for example, that young Cheyenne “Abe Lincoln” died at the age of 16, the day before the date listed on his gravestone, of pneumonia and meningitis.

Thanks to this research effort and transparency, families of young Native Americans in Carlisle can hope to find traces of their ancestors. But in other places, in other boarding schools, it’s sometimes more complicated. Families demand the remains of their loved ones in the hope that they will be able to bury them according to their rituals, and bring them on their land. But they still need to know where they are buried.

*Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Indigenous History, Memories and Reclamations”, University of Nebraska Press, 398 p.


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