Abe Lincoln, son of Antelope, Cheyenne, January 17, 1880. Dora, daughter of Brave Bull, Sioux, April 21, 1888. Kate Rosskidwits, Wichita, January 10, 1882. Next to the main road, dozens of small white tombstones . Nearby, a sign stuck in the yellow grass reminds us that the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, “the model of a federal system of boarding schools designed to assimilate American Indians into the dominant culture,” received more than 10,000 native children between 1879 and 1918. We are in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“Despite an idealistic beginning, the school has left a mixed and lasting legacy that creates opportunities for some students and conflicting identities for others. At this cemetery are 186 graves of students who died during their stay in Carlisle, “the sign added.” What did these children die of completely? No one really knows. Most of them died of tuberculosis and were buried on the spot to avoid infection. But abuse was also legion.The white graves have not yet revealed all their secrets.
Subject to military discipline
Some speak of a “policy of forced assimilation”. Others of “cultural genocide”. The 106-page report, unveiled on May 11 by Home Secretary Deb Haaland on Native American housing schools, opens a painful page in American history.
Between 1819 and 1969, thousands of Native American and Alaska and Hawaiian children were forcibly placed in federally run schools or religious institutions. Especially in Carlisle, the first boarding school of its kind established next to a reserve. With the dual aim of “cultural assimilation and despoliation of the territories of indigenous peoples through the forcible removal and relocation of their children”, the report clarifies. This policy had a name: “kill the Indian, save the man”.
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Children have been taken from their families. Some have been subjected to physical, sometimes sexual, violence. They were subjected to military discipline, deprived of food, punished when they did not speak English. One of the first things we did about them was cut their hair. They were cut off from everything that brought them back to their culture, their identity. Starting with their names. The older ones were forced to punish the younger ones, the investigation reports.
“The implications of federal policies for residential schools – including the intergenerational trauma caused by family segregation and the cultural extermination inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old – are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Deb Haaland said very touched as he presented the report. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, these boarding schools had about 20,000 children in 1900. By 1925, the number had more than tripled.
53 burial sites
The first Native American to be appointed US Secretary of State Deb Haaland launched the study in June 2021in Canada, near institutions run by the Catholic Church (215 in British Columbia, 750 in Saskatchewan). Thousands of children were reportedly buried anonymously without their families being informed.
The United States was not spared. But it is the extent of the phenomenon that remains difficult to determine. The first volume of the study unveiled by Joe Biden’s minister originally identified 408 schools in 37 states that were part of the “federal Indian housing school system,” including 21 in Alaska and seven in Hawaii. It is now up to investigators to check for graves near these former boarding schools, and to identify any human remains. They have so far located 53 burial sites, anonymous or not, and determined that “at least 500 Native American, Alaska, or Hawaiian children” died at these boarding schools.
But the study, how comprehensive and solid it is, will remain partial: it can only tackle institutions that were under federal jurisdiction. The puzzle of repatriation, which some tribes claim will emerge very quickly as macabre discoveries are made. For Bryan Newland, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, authorities expect to discover “thousands or tens of thousands” of victims of forced assimilation.
With the willow branch
This first report comes when Pope Francis announced that he intended to visit Canada from July 24 to 30 to reiterate his apologies on behalf of the Catholic Church. The Canadian government has decided to set up a $ 31.5 billion fund to compensate injured populations and strengthen the child protection system.
Native Americans have also just testified before the U.S. Congress. This is especially true of Matthew War Bonnet, 76, a Lakota who was forced into the St. Francis Boarding School in South Dakota with his nine brothers and sisters. He was then 6 years old. “I remember when I came to school, the pastors took us to this big room where there were six or eight tubs. A pastor put us all in the same tub and he scrubbed us hard with big brushes. The brushes made the skin on our buttocks raw. Our long hair was then cut. “
‘Corporal punishments were frequent. The priests often became impatient and punished us by hitting us with a leather strap or a willow branch, ”he added, almost embarrassed to testify. Matthew War Bonnet insists on the long-term trauma. Many of his former comrades who were victims of violence dipped in alcohol or became violent, he points out.
In an army complex
Deb Haaland comes from the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico on his mother’s side and is very familiar with the effects of forced assimilation. She lived it in her family. His grandparents were forcibly placed in boarding schools to be “Americanized.”
From now on, the minister hopes to encourage survivors to tell about the traumas they have experienced in order to overcome them. Above all, she promises to support and revive tribal and cultural practices for, she says, “thwarting two centuries of federal policy aimed at destroying them.” A healing process that promises to be both long and intense. And that comes very late.
In Carlisle, the Native American Children’s Cemetery is not accessible to the public without special permission. Because, the pinnacle of irony, if the school established in former military barracks logically depended on the Interior Ministry until its closure in 1918, the graves are now located again in a complex of the U.S. Army. , well guarded.
Some graves are empty. The remains of nine children were returned in July 2021 to the Sioux community in Rosebud, South Dakota, to which they belonged. In all, the bodies of “19 students have been exhumed and repatriated to their countries,” said Susan D. Rose. “Six others are to be exhumed on June 17. Some Native American nations want to bring their children home; others want their remains intact in the cemetery.”
She welcomes Deb Haaland’s report, “which draws serious attention to a long history of individual and collective trauma among Native Americans.” Professor of Sociology Susan D. Rose co-authored with Jacqueline Fear-Segal a reference work on the Carlisle School *. She is also the co-director of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, which does an impressive job of digitizing the archives (300,000 documents since 2013) and examining the 234 students who died during their stay at the boarding school, including the 186 who were buried there. ..
We learn, for example, that the young Cheyenne “Abe Lincoln” died at the age of 16, the day before the date on his tombstone, of pneumonia and meningitis.
Thanks to this effort for research and transparency, the families of the young Indians of Carlisle can hope to find traces of their ancestors. But elsewhere, at other boarding schools, it is sometimes more complicated. Families claim the remains of their loved ones in the hope of being able to offer them a funeral according to their rituals and have them on their land. But they still need to know where they are buried.
*“Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Indigenous Histories, Memories & Reclamations”, University of Nebraska Press, 398 p.
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