III. The Social and Cultural Impact of the Boarding School Era

The systematic removal of generations of American Indian children had a profound and lasting impact on American Indian culture. Indeed, the atrocities suffered by the children who were sent to boarding schools are the kinds of events that have a lasting and generally negative impact on an individual's well-being. American Indians who were sent to boarding schools lost their language, their culture, and their sense of self, and this profound loss was passed on from generation to generation. Traditionally, American Indian culture, traditions, values, and beliefs were passed on orally to younger generations by the elders. A segment of this oral tradition includes a responsibility of American Indian youth to seek out this knowledge from elders. However, as discussed below, a variety of factors such as the psychological impact of the boarding schools, and the inability to communicate because of lost language, made this nearly impossible.

A. The Immediate Impact

The primary goal of assimilation was to rid the American Indian of his culture and replace it with Euro-American culture. These two cultures, however, were fundamentally conflicted. American Indian culture is collectivistic and traditional; education focused on the application of shared principles and cooperation. Conversely, Euro-American education was starkly individualistic and emphasized competition. This conflict of educational priorities and cultural style often led both the American Indians and Euro-Americans to have profound misconceptions about the other. For example, Euro-Americans often believed that Indians were lazy, unintelligent, and too dependant on the tribes. Likewise, American Indians believed that Euro-Americans were slaves to their own materialism. "You are slaves from the time you begin to talk until you die, but we are as free as air. . . . Our wants are few and easily supplied. The river, the wood and plain yield all that we require, and we will not be slaves . . . ."

These vast cultural differences made it difficult for American Indian children to understand and embrace Euro-American culture. Likewise, it made it difficult for their teachers to understand and comprehend the struggle faced by American Indian youth. This conflict was especially pronounced regarding the U.S. government's "English-Only" policy.

The BIA formally adopted an English-Only policy in 1885:

All instruction must be in English, except in so far as the native language of the pupils shall be a necessary medium for conveying the knowledge of English, and the conversation of and communications between the pupils and with the teacher must be, as far as practicable, in English.

The purpose of the English-Only policy was to accelerate the rate of assimilation, and it was designed to eliminate the use of the American Indian children's tribal language. The mainstream belief of the time was that the tribal languages spoken by American Indians was fundamentally inferior to English, but that as long as children were taught their native language they would not be able to embrace English. Government officials believed that if a generation of children were taught English exclusively, they would understand its superiority and would abandon their native language.

Much to the detriment of the culture and identity of many American Indians, the BIA's English-Only policy was very successful in transforming generations of American Indian children into English speakers. The English-Only policy not only applied to the classroom, but also applied to all aspects of life at the boarding schools. Therefore, until children had grasped enough of the English language to communicate with their schoolmates, life at the boarding schools was very isolating. For some, a deep cultural shame developed, associated with speaking their native language, that caused them to avoid using their language. Yet for others, years of non-use led them to forget their native language.

Feelings of alienation were common for young American Indians returning from boarding school. Often they had forgotten much of their own language and culture, and could no longer connect with their families. For example, Way quah gishig was given a new name, John Rogers, and was taught that his traditional tribal language was inferior to English. He later wrote of his return home: "I was anxious to see my mother and be home again" and when he saw his mother for the first time upon his return "[s]he started talking joyously, but we could not understand very well what she said, for we had forgotten much of the Indian language during our six years away from home."

American Indians who grew up in boarding schools struggled to develop a healthy self identity as a result of being isolated from their families, and being taught that their language, culture, and beliefs were inferior or evil. This is largely due to the fact that children were sent away from home at such a young age. Young children have not fully developed their sense of self, and being placed in a harsh, institutional environment will have a negative impact on that child's ability to form a strong sense of self as an adult.

Boarding school survivors had trouble fitting in with their tribes when they returned home because they no longer understood the language and customs, nor could their families understand them. "We didn't like ourselves because we were Indian. We were bad. We were no good. We were uneducated, illiterate. We were not going to amount to anything." Sadly, this was a relatively commonly phenomenon.

The vast cultural loss of American Indian identity was also impacted by the physical and sexual abuse that some children faced while attending boarding schools. While it is understood that such abuse can affect the self esteem of children and can also lead to the abused becoming an abuser, the impact on American Indian children may be even more profound. This is because of Native beliefs about how the "body, mind, and spirit are intertwined."

Another factor adding to the destruction of the American Indian identity was the abuse of American Indian children at boarding schools by former attendees who were now employed there. According to Joyce Burr, who attended Wahpeton Boarding School, the worst abuse came from such individuals?"I suppose the same thing happened to them, so they turned around and did the same thing to us." In some cases, teachers would force the children to punish a classmate who had misbehaved, utilizing an approach called a "hotline," where offending students were required "to walk a gauntlet of classmates wielding belts or sticks or hairbrushes." With circumstances of abuse by their own people, combined with messages that their culture and traditions were evil, it is understandable that American Indian children learned to dislike themselves.

Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, recognized the intergenerational impact of the boarding school era in a statement he made at the celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the establishment of the BIA:

Even in this era of self-determination, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs is at long last serving as an advocate for Indian people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampart alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian Country. The sum total of the loss of language, loss of culture, loss of connection with family, and the rejection American Indian's still faced in Euro-American culture led to a profound loss of identity, which in many respects was the most harmful impact that the boarding schools had on individuals.

B. The Lingering Impact

Individuals who attended boarding schools are not the only ones affected. The problems that developed at the boarding schools were passed on through families and felt by tribal communities. One of the most direct ways that subsequent generations were impacted as the result of the boarding school era was the inability of American Indians, who were raised in boarding schools and subjected to systematic neglect and corporal punishment, to transition naturally into parenthood. For example, parents who had no nurturing role models were "unable to give their own children the nurturing they needed."

Compounding the inability to transition from boarding school child to nurturing parent was the fact that many American Indians who attended boarding school suffered from mental health and chemical dependency problems, which further isolated them from their children. Furthermore, these parents were not raised within the cultural traditions and heritage of their ancestors and thus did not have the traditional guidance to help them along the way, nor could they pass on such knowledge to their own children. Much as their parents had lost their identities, later generations, after years of marginalization and learned shame, came to reject their identity as American Indians.

Another area that continues to be affected by the boarding school era is the effect of the government's efforts to eradicate American Indian languages. Eradication of language was an essential part of the "efforts to ‘civilize' and assimilate Native Americans." As a result, American Indian languages became very obscure. One survey of American Indian languages conducted in 1997 found that only 175 tribal languages remain of the over 300 that were known at the time of the European settlers, and of those, fifty-five are spoken by fewer than six people. There is now great interest in the American Indian community to preserve tribal language, and many tribes are using technology to spread their language and cultural heritage.

Another helpful measure of the lingering impact of the boarding school era is the statistical and demographic resources available from government and non-profit agencies. Statistical comparisons between American Indian populations and other demographic groups lend evidence to the notion that the impact of the Indian boarding school era is continuing to affect American Indians in a variety of ways. According to a study done by the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System, American Indians are over represented in a number of measures. For example, American Indian youth are over represented in the juvenile justice system compared to their relative population. The task force found that approximately 9% of the juveniles in the system were Native American, while their overall percentage in the general population is only 1.6%.

Additionally, the statewide high school dropout rates for Native American students is 8.69%, more than 2% higher than the next highest minority dropout rate. Like the juvenile justice statistics, dropout rates are disproportionate to the underlying population percentage. Another area where American Indian children are over represented occurs in out-of-home placements; 11.5% of all Minnesota children in out-of-home placement were American Indian.