A statement made in 1882 by Hiram Price, then U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, may be taken as representative of the kind of thinking that went into U.S. Indian policy in the area of “education.” In his annual report, Price declared that certain white men and women had “gone among the Indians. … for the higher and nobler purpose of helping these untutored and uncivilized people to a higher plane of existence.”
Regular educational and missionary work among the Indians was the key, said Price: “In no other manner and by no other means, in my judgment, can our Indian population be so speedily and permanently reclaimed from the barbarism, idolatry, and savage life, as by the educational and missionary operations of the Christian people of our country.”
In keeping with the above thinking, Indian residential “schools” were established by the U.S. government. (I use quotation marks around the word “schools” because it seems strange to use such a positive-sounding term to refer to those institutions).
Thousands of Indian children were subjected to indoctrination and humiliation in those “schools,” and this enforced institutionalization of Indian children was designed to mould them into a form designed to match the white peoples’ idealized mental image of what Indian people ought to be, and how they ought to live. The often dehumanizing and terrible conditions found in these “schools” continued from the late 19th century to at least the 1970s.
In 1932, Robert Gessner published a book entitled “Massacre: A Survey of Today’s American Indian.” In a chapter titled, “Flogging Children,” Gessner recounted testimony delivered in May 1930 before “the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs” The testimony concerned numerous instances of brutality committed against Indian children in the boarding “schools.”
“The evidence was as startling as it was indisputable, charging the chief disciplinarian, Jacob Duran, and his assistant disciplinarians. … of beating a large number of children with leather straps, striking them on the head and mouth with fists, knocking them down, and kicking them with boots.” Such dehumanizing treatment of children was undoubtedly designed to “reclaim” them from “barbarism, idolatry, and a savage life.”
R. E. L. Daniel, head of the Yankton Sioux Agency in South Dakota, had not only received a pension “for his good behavior.” He had also “received complete protection from the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs for having ‘children beaten with leather straps, knocked down for sarcasm to the disciplinarian, struck with fist and hard objects until covered from face to knees with blood.”
At the Phoenix boarding school, one boy, “Francis Makill, was beaten by the disciplinarian,” when the boy “asked him for a pair of khaki pants. The facts of this beating have been sworn into affidavit of March 22, 1930.”
Ernest Somegastava, 21, in a sworn affidavit, stated “that during the past four or five years he has seen Jacob Duran ‘whip boys between the ages of 10 to 14 years with a leather strap, two thicknesses sewn together, giving them five or six stripes each, respectively.” One former student, Willie Curran, testified “that he, being a big boy, was on one occasion commanded to participate in the mass flogging of 80 Indian boys, much smaller than he.”
What “crime” had resulted in these Indian boys being flogged? They had, said the affidavit, gone off to a merry-go-round that was nearby the playgrounds of the Phoenix School. The disciplinarian, Elario, ordered the bigger boys to gather up the younger children and bring them to his office. He personally flogged six or seven of the young boys, and then ordered the larger ones to flog the rest. Two harness straps sewn together were used for the whipping.
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Mr. H. J. Russell, a construction engineer with the Indian Service, wrote about what he had witnessed: “I have seen Indian boys chained to their beds at night for punishment. I have seen them thrown in cellars under the building, which the superintendent called a jail. I have seen their shoes taken away from them and then forced to walk through the snow to the barn to help milk. I have seen them whipped with a hemp rope, also a water hose.” He saw them forced “to do servant’s work for employees and superintendent without compensation under the guise of industrial employment and education.”
Another man, W. Carson Ryan Jr., someone who had been charged with investigating such instances, described the jail he found on his trip to Wahpeton, N.D.: “The superintendent showed me a dungeon in the basement previously used for girls, up to his coming two years ago.” The dungeon was described as 18 feet by eight feet, and “absolutely dark.” “Girls told the superintendent,” said Ryan, “of two or three of them sleeping there on mattresses and rats crawling over them at night. Their food was bread and water.”
These examples, and countless others that could be chronicled, clearly demonstrate intergenerational dehumanization and intergenerational trauma inflicted on Indian children in the so-called boarding schools. Such trauma has had a destructive psychological impact on indigenous nations and peoples that we still deal with to this day.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of “Pagans in the Promise Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).