Today is National Day of Remembrance for U.S. Indian Boarding Schools. It’s a day to remember the mostly tragic things that happened to children torn from their families. I have read through textual records at several locations of the U.S. National Archives (NARA) that relate to boarding schools, page by page, folder by folder. I have also read through manuscript material in state historical societies and archives that relate to both government and religious boarding schools. I read journals of the agents and superintendents “in charge” of the children and gasped at the awful comments. I cannot quote from the material because the work was done for clients, often in legal matters. A few times, I had to leave the area where I was reading the records and go hide in a bathroom stall while I shuddered and had some tears.
Little children beaten, starved, forced to eat gross food, hair chopped off, and more. Older children farmed out to work as housekeepers, farm hands, and other jobs and who were generally treated horribly. Parents who wrote to the school superintendent begging for their child to come home to help care for others in the family because the Mother or Father had just died. Parents who missed their children and wanted them to come home for a while. Did I read, “oh sure, we’ll send little Annie home.” No, excuses were sent such as that will disrupt the child’s education, there is no money in the school budget for a train ticket, or that the child is safer here. If you believe those excuses, I have a bunch of bridges to sell you. Many children suffered through a variety of diseases, and many did die. Burials were done on the school property and not marked or recorded. It might be months before the parents were notified.
Yes, there are some cases where being at the boarding school was better for a child. Yes, there are some cases where orphaned children finally had a place to sleep. For the majority, it was the aim of the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to form these children into the government’s idea of what they should be and act like. That means hair was cut, no Native American clothing, no Native American ceremonies, and no language of their tribe.
The history taught in my schooling did not cover these tragedies, nor did it cover what the government did to the original inhabitants and owners of the land on which most U.S. residents reside. Say a prayer for, apologize to, and remember all these young lives commandeered by or who died at the hands of those running the boarding schools. The federal government, state governments, religious organizations, and individuals did not save the children.
© 2021, Paula Stuart-Warren. All rights reserved.