Current Problems

Education (6-12)

U.S. finally facing a residential school reckoning

June 4, 2024

Toronto Star: Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and first Native American to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has spent millions in recent years on projects to uncover and expose the legacy of Indian boarding schools in the U.S.

Like residential schools in Canada, the Indian boarding schools stripped generations of Indigenous children from their families, robbed them of their native languages, and exposed them to rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Many children died.

According to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, Haaland’s efforts are partially inspired by the Canadian government’s recent work on residential schools.

That’s ironic because the Canadian residential school system was originally inspired by the American boarding school system.

In 1879, John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, sent MP Nicholas Davin to Pennsylvania to investigate the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for Native American children. The “school,” headed by Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War general who coined the adage “kill the Indian in him and save the man,” took much from Pratt’s experience running military prisons. It was more like a re-education camp than a school. Conditions were brutal, abuse was rampant.

Pratt separated children from their families. He stripped them of their names, cut their hair, forcibly converted them to Christianity and banned all vestiges of their Native American cultures and languages. Davin was impressed. His subsequent report was warmly received by Macdonald and set the stage for the opening of Canada’s first three residential schools.

So the U.S. was the birthplace of the residential school system, but it was Canada that took the first steps toward truth and reconciliation. That’s not because of bold government action. It’s because courageous residential school survivors sued the Canadian government and the churches that ran the schools and eventually forced the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Thousands of survivors testified at the TRC about the sexual, physical and spiritual abuse they suffered in residentials schools. The subsequent TRC report included 94 calls to action, a plan for Canada to learn from the past while addressing contemporary injustices.

The U.S. is now looking to that process as a guide. That is mostly a good thing. But there are lessons from the Canadian process Haaland should heed.

For one thing, survivors should not have to force the U.S. government to accept accountability. A full ventilation of the historical record before the American people, in the schools and in the media, should be a given, not a fight.

The estates of children who died at boarding schools should be compensated and the repatriation of their remains supported. (The Canadian government has consistently refused to compensate the relatives of children who died in residential schools, instead offering payments only to those who survived.)

Financial compensation is crucial, but it must be accompanied by proper supports, so the money is life enhancing, not life ending.

Class action lawyers should be closely monitored to ensure there is no exploitation or cashing in on the suffering of survivors. (Frankly, lawyers should represent boarding school survivors on a pro-bono basis because the legal profession was, and remains, one of the chief architects of the colonial system.)

More than 35,000 Native American children attended U.S. boarding schools like Carlisle. Native American communities are beginning to repatriate the children who died there back to their homelands. But the $21 million (U.S.) pledged by Haaland, whose own greatgrandfather was taken to the Carlisle, is not enough to ensure a meaningful process led by Native American people and boarding school survivors.

Haaland and Native American communities face an additional challenge — the deafening silence of most American politicians, mainstream media and school curriculums on the histories, contributions and rights of American Indians.

My plea to Secretary Haaland: the Indian residential school survivors courageously shared their truths so their grandchildren would not have to suffer. The residential schools are closed, but that suffering continues. Any process aimed at righting the wrongs of the Indian boarding school era must be comprehensive and aimed as much at the present and the future as at the past.

Clean drinking water is reconciliation. Proper funding for health, education and social services is reconciliation. Recognition and affirmation of Native American rights is reconciliation.

The U.S. has a chance to make sure that the Indian boarding school survivors’ calls to action are, well, actioned. That would set a great example for Canada to follow.