Sunday, July 1, 2018

Separation of children in Indian Country - The boarding school experiment

Over the past couple of weeks, millions of Americans have sat horrified as images of children being taken from their families by ICE officers have flooded our screens. Many of us are troubled by the thought of children being taken from their families and placed into unfamiliar surroundings where they do not know anyone and may not even speak the language. These images, while horrifying, are not unprecedented in American history. In fact, at one point, it was the official policy of the United States government to take children away from Native communities, send them to boarding schools in distant lands, and try to strip them of their cultures.  I have covered this before, but given current events, I thought that it would be timely to briefly revisit the issue.

"Kill the Indian, save the man" was the rallying cry of General Richard Henry Pratt, who thought that the way forward for Native people was to be stripped of their cultures and assimilated into mainstream American society. Pratt believed that this could only be achieved by removing the child from their homeland and immersing them into Western society, an idea that led him to establish the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. At Carlisle, students were taught to speak English, their hair was cut, their names changed, and they were discouraged from practicing their traditional cultures. The "success" of Carlisle even led to similar schools being established in other locations.

From almost every humanitarian perspective, Carlisle was an unmitigated disaster. Many students, unaccustomed to the diseases common in white society and in the industrialized North, died there and were buried on the school's grounds. The students were also subjected to violence as a form of punishment. The graduation rate was, as you might expect, very low. Over 10,000 students from 140 tribes attended Carlisle but yet, according to at least one source, only 158 actually graduated. By every metric, the school had failed in its stated goals.

The effects of this on the communities back home are real and continue to this very day, years after Carlisle shut its doors and the boarding school experiment was put into the dustbin of history. You can read more about the long term effects of the boarding school experience here, it's a long but very interesting read.

If we are to wonder about the effects of forcibly taking children from their families, we already have a blueprint to draw from. The effects are not limited to the individual person who experiences the event, they carry through for multiple successive generations. The communities affected by the current policies will likely feel its effects for generations to come.

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