Cultural Healing: Native American Activists Say Boarding School Abuses Harmed the Health of Generations

—Suzy Subways

December 2008 • Issue 9

An 1890s photo of Carlisle Boarding School graduates. Carlisle, the first Native American boarding school, was opened by Captain Richard Pratt in 1878.

“Many of the problems of alcoholism and drug abuse now prevalent in Indian country can be traced back to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of our keepers in the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and mission boarding schools,” Lakota journalist and boarding school survivor Tim Giago wrote in the Huffington Post. Government-sponsored boarding schools have created a legacy of trauma among Native American peoples in the United States. The Boarding School Healing Project documents the abuse and demonstrates how it has led to high rates of childhood sexual abuse, family violence, violence against women, alcoholism, and drug use in Native communities. In addition to the homophobia the schools enforced in children from cultures traditionally welcoming of gay and gender-nonconforming people, most of these symptoms of trauma are the same factors that make Native communities vulnerable to HIV. A look at the brutal history of these boarding schools can teach us a lot about the ways that social injustice fuels the epidemic – and how to fight back.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government debated how to remove Native Americans from their land – “extermination or civilization,” as one former commissioner of Indian Affairs put it – and it paid Christian churches to run boarding schools as a “civilizing” alternative, Cherokee activist Andrea Smith writes in her book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and Native American Genocide. Army captain Richard Pratt opened the first of the schools in 1879, arguing that they would “kill the Indian and save the man” by destroying the cultural link between children and their communities. Until the 1930s, Native children were forcibly taken from their families at age 5, and parents who resisted were jailed.

For 100 years, from the 1880s through 1980s, about 100,000 Native people grew up at the schools. Abuse was rampant, and children were physically punished for speaking Native languages or practicing their religion. “I want people to know how we were beaten with leather straps, shorn of our hair, and used as child slave-laborers at these boarding schools,” Giago writes. “My eight-year-old sister, along with dozens of Lakota girls the same age, was raped at the mission school …. [she] told me about her abuse on her deathbed and I, along with her three children, finally understood why she had become a violent, alcoholic woman for so much of her life.”

“I agree that the effects are intergenerational on families, primarily in the area of sexual, mental, physical, and emotional abuses,” activist Charmaine Whiteface told the Native Press. “My parents both attended a Catholic boarding school and experienced, as well as saw, all these types of abuses. They refused to speak the Lakota language to us and only wanted us to be ‘white.’ There was alcoholism and major physical, emotional and mental abuse in our home. They knew no other way: They were terrified of being Indian. If it were not for my grandmother who taught me in secret, I might not have even a little knowledge about my culture.”

“The effects are intergenerational on families, primarily in the area of sexual, mental, physical, and emotional abuses.”

Canada forced Native children into residential schools until the 1970s, and abuses there are better documented. According to the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, churches and government are responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 Native children. Survivors tell of witnessing church and school officials murder their classmates through beatings, hangings, electric shock, and other forms of torture. Many children starved because the schools were run on chronically low budgets. Until the 1940s, students were intentionally exposed to tuberculosis. Survivors say they were forced to play and share beds with children dying of the disease. There is testimony that babies born to Native girls raped by church officials were killed and buried on school grounds. The Canadian government issued an apology this year, but activists say that nearly half the survivors will be left without compensation, and witnesses will not be allowed to give the names of perpetrators or describe any misconduct.

Being torn from family leaves its own scars. “I didn’t know how to relate to my mom, because she didn’t know how to relate to her mom, because my grandma was also in a boarding school,” says Sammy Toineeta, a third-generation boarding school survivor and Boarding School Healing Project activist. “Kids, even if they’re not in boarding schools today, feel that sense of isolation. As a result of that, they turn to alcohol.”

Martha Burnside, a tribal liaison and trainer for Commitment to Action for 7th-Generation Awareness & Education: HIV/AIDS Prevention Project in Colorado, also traces alcoholism to the isolation engendered by boarding schools. “Children in boarding schools were not nurtured or parented,” she says. “It was a military environment. This is why so many Native men and women have joined the military – they continued what they had learned all their lives. Because they did not receive nurturing, these children were left without the bonding parents develop with their children. This can lead to low self-esteem and a feeling of not belonging. So what do they do? They self-medicate. Drinking and drugging put our people at very high risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. When someone is high, they are more likely to have unprotected sex, because inhibitions are lowered, and they are much more willing to say yes, whereas if they were sober they would never consider saying yes. Tribal members in the Southwest have told me that there has been an insurgence of crystal meth on their reservations. You give this to someone who has low self-esteem, and bam! They feel good, they feel sexy and invincible! This is very, very scary for someone who is lonely and looking for someone to love them, even it is just for one night.”

Institutionalized Sexual Abuse and HIV

Andrea Smith, who also works with the Boarding School Healing Project and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, argues in Conquest that, in order to take Native land, European colonizers had to try to destroy the traditional social structures of Native communities, where violence against women and children was very rare. During the time of its colonization of the Americas, Europe was a place where witch-burnings, wife beating, and torture were accepted. Smith argues that the frequent use of sexual assault by European colonizers and their descendents is a tool of genocide that attacks the identity of Native women. “The project of colonial sexual violence establishes the ideology that Native bodies are inherently violable – and by extension, that Native lands are also inherently violable,” she writes.

St. Michael’s Residential School, run by the Anglican Church for Native children in Alert Bay, British Columbia, until 1974. The building is now owned by the ’Namgis First Nation and houses a community center.

The boarding schools continued that legacy by creating a cycle of sexual violence. In her 2007 article Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools, Smith quotes Willetta Dolphus, survivor of a South Dakota boarding school: “Dolphus, now director of the South Dakota Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, sees boarding school policies as the central route through which sexual abuse became entrenched in Native communities, as many victims became molesters themselves.”

Research compiled by Advocates for Youth shows that, because childhood sexual abuse can destroy the sense of personal power needed to negotiate safer sex in adulthood, survivors of this abuse are more vulnerable to HIV. Childhood sexual abuse survivors are also more likely to manage their emotional pain with alcohol or drugs, which makes sex without condoms more likely. One study found that male sexual abuse survivors had double the HIV rate of non-abused males. In another study, 65% of HIV positive participants reported physical and/or sexual abuse histories.

Institutionalized Homophobia and HIV

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Joan Benoit, executive director of the Native American AIDS Project in San Francisco, says that when her group first brought information tables to Pow Wows, community elders would ask them to remove the condoms. After the activists respectfully met with the elders to discuss the urgency of HIV, that changed. Still, Benoit said, “There’s quite a bit of homophobia in Native settings. Not on all reservations. But the ones who have been impacted more by missionaries and boarding schools are more closed and homophobic. It’s difficult to come out there.”

Sammy Toineeta says that before the 20th century, the Lakota people respected winktes, men who had feminine characteristics. “They went from being a revered person to being a freak,” she says. “The role of the winkte starts in childhood. It’s about the recognition of those characteristics and their development in a spiritual way. The winkte gives each baby a secret name, and my grandmother told me that when I was born it took them almost a year before they could find one who grew up in that spiritual [Lakota] way.” Toineeta is inspired by the Two Spirit movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Native Americans, who claim the Two Spirit identity to honor traditional roles in many tribes for people who embody both female and male spirits.

Healing and Reparations

The Boarding School Healing Project has taken its documentation to global authorities such as the United Nations. Next, the project will return to community organizing to document more testimony from survivors. This is very difficult, Toineeta says, because many of them are elderly, isolated on reservations, and distrustful because of their trauma. “They are reluctant to talk to even a member of their own community about their experiences.” Speaking about the abuse can be healing for some, but many survivors withdraw from their loved ones afterward. In Canada, 22 of the 29 men who first spoke out in 1998 about their sexual abuse in residential schools have committed suicide, a Vancouver counselor told Smith.

“Our dream is to have a safe space where people can come in and talk about it, and the psychological component can be addressed,” Toineeta says. “We don’t want to stir up old, painful memories and not do anything about it.” The project is also developing innovative ways to involve communities in the healing work. “At every Pow Wow, the veterans of foreign wars march at the front,” she says. “We talk about recognizing the boarding school survivors at Pow Wows like we do veterans, because they are survivors of their own wars.” Honoring survivors can break the shame individuals feel for what was done to them and, in the process, break the isolation the boarding schools created.

“Our dream is to have a safe space where people can come in and talk about it, and the psychological component can be addressed.”

Toineeta credits her mother and grandmother for her spiritual survival. “My first school was right there in my hometown, so I could go home on Saturdays, but we had to be back for mass on Sunday morning. On Saturdays, my mom and grandma took us to ceremonies, and when the school found out about that, they sent us to another school 100 miles away. But I’m forever grateful that my mom and grandma did that. I was able to retain my language and knowledge of ceremonial rituals.”

Now, spiritual ceremonies are a place for healing and rebuilding community. They’re also a place where the Boarding School Healing Project can build trust with survivors. Instead of the usual methods, like going door-to-door, she says, “You have to do a whole different kind of community organizing. We’ll send an organizer from that community to public gatherings where everyone goes. Then, when the elderly people see some of their friends talking to us, they’re more willing.”

Toineeta says the project is working with lawyers to develop Congressional legislation for reparations. “We’re not looking for an apology, because we’ve got stacks of them,” she says. “Something physical has to come of it, whether it’s a return of land, or payments for teachers to teach the language of that particular area. If part of the reparations is money, we don’t want the U.S. government overseeing it, because they created the problem. We have to hold the system accountable, and we can’t let them tell us how to heal.”


Filed under Alternatives to 501c3, Canada, displacement and gentrification, economic justice, gay and bisexual men, gender, imperialism/colonialism, Native Americans/Indigenous peoples, sexual violence, Solidarity Project, stigma, trans and gender non-conforming, women, youth

3 responses to “Cultural Healing: Native American Activists Say Boarding School Abuses Harmed the Health of Generations

  1. Hi there, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam feedback?

    If so how do you prevent it, any plugin or anything you
    can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.

    • Suzy Subways

      Hi, and thanks so much for reading my blog! I don’t really get much spam. Maybe once every few months. Unless I’m not noticing it. There must be something you can find online to use, but I’m not familiar with any. I guess just reading some discussion boards to find out what others have found useful is the only suggestion I can think of. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

  2. When do you think or do you think the United States will ever acknowledge and apologize for what happened in their boarding schools? My mother never really shown much affection to her children. She drank alcohol every day after my father died.She also passed at the age of 45 leaving behind 8 children. (She was a victim of the boarding schools)

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