Dean S. Seneca
and Katherine E. Connelly
Seneca Scientific Solutions+
The relationship between the United States and Indigenous populations has been built on broken promises for the theft of Native land, culture, and identity. Treaty-making practices and governmental policies have forced this inequitable relationship, which has resulted in sanctioned ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.
The operation of Indian boarding schools remains one of the core intergenerational atrocities that continues to impact Indigenous communities, families, and individuals to this day. Alongside the government, religious institutions remain in control of these schools and many within these entities are guilty of abusing Indigenous children.
These Indian boarding schools were not academic institutions, but instead militarized, labor-intensive concentration camps, established to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture, nothing more than ethnic cleansing hidden under the disguise of doing “good” for the American people.
In these institutions, Native children were taught that the genocide of their people was a benefit to them, and the only other option to assimilation into the predominant white culture was death and damnation.
To understand this relationship and these intergenerational traumas, we must look at the history, policy and institutions that directly committed and contributed to the mass genocide of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Much of this policy revolves around the formation and function of Indian boarding schools, one of the most devastating assaults on Indigenous populations since disease ravaged tens of thousands of Native people upon initial European contact in the Americas.
The policy eras of Conquest (1492-1780), Treaty-Making (1790-1849) and Assimilation (1850-1921) provided a historical platform for the forced imprisonment of Native children, an effort that sought to strip them of their cultural identity.
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” is the prevailing motto of Army officer Richard Henry Pratt’s Indian boarding schools that were opened in the 1860s that further solidified the pervasive ideology of Manifest Destiny — an ideology utilized by Adolf Hitler to justify Germany’s “God-given right” of expansion during World War II.
This is the same ideology Adolf Hitler utilized when forming concentration camps. Hitler studied how the United States governments’ reservation systems were created to “deal with the Indian problem.”
The ideology, this doctrine of belief that sited the expansion of the United States throughout the American continents as both justified and inevitable, was utilized as a weapon of mass genocide both in Europe and in the United States. This ideology is still being used to justify past horrors and atrocities committed against Indigenous populations.
As both the “Meriam Report” in 1928 and “The Declaration of Indian Purpose” in 1961 clearly outlined, historically there have been many shortcomings and broken promises on behalf of the U.S. federal government in relation to American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
Perhaps the most pervasive and damaging disclosures of these reports are the undeniable truths concerning the inhumane implementation and conditions of Indian boarding schools.
As stated in the Meriam Report, “The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.”
Even with these and subsequent governmental findings, Indian boarding schools remained open and unchanged. The last residential schools in Canada were not closed until the 1990s, while the last government-run Indian boarding schools in the U.S. were not closed until 1983.
During this period, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, restoring Indigenous parents’ legal right to deny the placement of their children in these off-reservation schools. Prior to this act being passed, Indigenous parents were unable to refuse federal and religious officials who came to kidnap their babies, watching helplessly as their loved ones were ripped away from them, their communities and their homes.
For more than 136 years, Native children were wrenched away from their parents, some barely 3 years of age, and forced into environments of brutality, isolation and assimilation.
These institutions and efforts were supported and aided by many of the local churches and missionaries, who had a substantial hand in the abuse, assault and atrocities suffered by Indigenous children kidnapped from their families and forced into servitude.
Holy men and governmental officials alike were active and complicit in the sexual assault and psychological torture of these children.
The Canadian government in recent years has admitted that the majority of children in Canadian residential schools suffered sexual abuse. In addition to the horror of rape and molestation, many of the children in these institutions were also forced to undergo sterilization procedures that removed their sexual organs.
The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, Canada, passed in 1928, and while fewer than 2.5 percent of the total population for Alberta was Indigenous, Indigenous people made up 25 percent of the total federally forced sterilization cases.
The eugenics movement was also present in the United States, with the main aim being to rid North America of “undesirables” and “half-breeds” as well as those considered to be “criminal,” “insane,” “imbecilic,” “feeble-minded,” blind, deaf and diseased.
The policies and practices further promoted the ideology of purifying the race through eugenics as well as the elimination of the Indigenous race through mass genocide, an ideology that was heavily utilized to justify the existence of Indian boarding schools and the cruelties that occurred therein.
The church was and continues to be predominantly in control of the operation of these schools, and many within these institutions are guilty of abusing Native children whose care they were charged with.
Yet the residential schools did so much more than break the body, mind and spirit of these helpless children, it broke the most sacred and fundamental of all human ties: the bond between a child and their parents. This intergenerational trauma lives on and is carried by every member of the Native community. No tools, no coping mechanisms could possibly be enough in dealing with the immense distress of the separation of a parent from a child.
This separation practice was allowed to continue into the late 1990s and was in fact championed by the federal government and the church as an effective weapon in the total destruction of Indian culture.
These perpetual wounds have been torn open with the discoveries of the 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia; the 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan; the 104 children found in Brandon, Manitoba; the 161 unmarked graves in Fort Providence in the Northwest Territories; the 35 children found in Muskowekwan, Saskatchewan; the 182 unmarked graves in Ktunaxa Nation in British Columbia; more than 160 children found in Penelakut, Saskatchewan; the 35 unmarked graves in Regina, Saskatchewan; the 34 children found of the 73 reported missing in Dunbow, Alberta; the 74 unmarked graves in Battlefort, Saskatchewan, and the 80 children found in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The bodies of more than 5,043 Indigenous children have been uncovered in federal Canadian investigations to date. Federal investigations into the United States residential schools will reveal similar results — mass unmarked graves and the bodies of hundreds, thousands, of Native children purloined from their parents.
In non-federal investigations, we have already confirmed the remains of the bodies of 227 children in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan; 189 children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; 21 children in Grand Junction, Colorado; 21 children with another 30 expected to be found in Rapid City, South Dakota; 103 children in Haskell, Kansas; 200 children in Carson City, Nevada; 222 children in Chemawa, Oregon; 67 children in Newkirk, Oklahoma; and 67 children in Riverside, California.
Before federal investigations have even truly started in the United States, we have already discovered the bodies of over 1,079 stolen souls. How many more are missing?
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) lists 367 Indian boarding schools in 29 states assisted by 14 separate religious denominations. There are 73 Indian boarding schools that still remain open and operating today, with 15 schools still boarding.
How many schools are not on the list of NABS? To provide one example; The Good Shepherd Mission at Fort Defiance was not listed, as “school” was not part of its name. The mission has flown under the radar and thus has not been classified as an Indian boarding school.
The mission started as a chapel/hospital and eventually was established as an Indian boarding school and an orphanage.
The “outing system,” which was responsible for sending Indigenous children to white families to act as servants, benefited heavily from the ease of access to kidnapped and orphaned children being confined in these schools.
Although only about 20 percent of these orphans were actually orphans — and it must be acknowledged that these Indian boarding schools were the only form of financial and educational support they had as they truly were without parents — this small kindness of providing shelter and food does not absolve the guilty parties of crimes committed against each and every child present at these institutions.
This mission was not alone in avoiding classification as an Indian boarding school, as many “shelters,” “orphanage facilities,” “chapels,” “medical facilities,” and/or “hospitals” were, in fact, nothing more than devious concealments hiding the real revulsions of Indian boarding schools behind the facades of socially accepted institutions and organizations.
How many children, how many babies, were adopted out, never to know who they really are?
No child should be forcibly removed from their parents. No community should have its families shattered and torn apart. No people should undergo the devastation of having their culture, their ancestral land, their names, their hair, their language, their tradition, their peace, their sovereignty, their lives ripped away from them while they are forced into silence, and forced into submission.
It was not an uncommon practice for the United States to refuse to provide food and supplies to Native communities who refused to send their children to death camps. It was not uncommon for Native children to be taken from their front yards, their streets, their homes — having been ripped from the grasp of their helpless parents.
It was not uncommon for Native children to be beaten, starved, used as scientific experiments, sexually sterilized and raped at Indian boarding schools. Many are now just discovering the horrid truths that all in the Native community have known since the inception of these schools.
It was not uncommon for children to be killed, buried and utilized as an example to their fellow classmates that they too would be killed to save the “man.”
Indigenous children within these schools were used as experimental subjects for food and pharmaceutical studies, further dehumanizing them. Young women and girls who had children due to rape in these boarding schools had their babies wrenched from their bodies and tossed into the incinerators. If ever a Native child forgot who controlled their life or death, they simply had to look outside at the countless graves of their people that surrounded their prisons.
An example of such an event occurred following a rebellion in Alberta, Canada, in 1885. Indigenous members of this rebellion were captured, and while a few were jailed, eight were taken to a platform outside of the Battleford Industrial School where Native children were forced to watch as these men were hanged as a lasting reminder of White colonial power and what would happen to any child that made trouble for the Crown.
In the United States, the church, missionaries and government officials decided who among these stolen souls would live, who would die and who would simply disappear.
Many individuals at these institutions believed “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Many of the individuals at both the governmental and religious institution levels are still alive today and yet have not been forced to answer for their crimes. These individuals are not only racist in their beliefs and ideologies, but an active threat to the safety, peace, prosperity and healing of Native communities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently defined racism as a public health threat, and it is on this same foundation of systemic racism that the extermination and oppression of Indigenous populations have been permitted to occur. No longer can these racist policies and ideologies be allowed to persist.
A full investigation into these Indian boarding schools and all those individuals involved with their implementation and continued function is not only necessary but also heinously overdue.
The federal and religious organizations and individuals involved must stand a public trial and answer for their corruptions committed on the Native communities.
A full governmental review of the existing policies allowing these crimes to be continually committed against Indigenous populations must be completed immediately and in collaboration with Native representatives. No longer can these issues be looked at from the White colonialist perspective; they must instead be looked at from the perspective of the individuals and communities who have survived this holocaust.
This involves giving complete and total control of all investigations and investigatory findings directly to appropriate members of the Indigenous community such as tribal leaders and tribal representatives. There is no trust between Native people and the U.S. federal government.
To ensure a fair and truthful investigation into these crimes, power must be given to Native communities. Every step in this process must be both public and transparent. The proper re-writing and accurate representation of American history must be led from the Native perspective, as was similarly done concerning Germany’s history and the mass genocide of the Jewish people. We do not hire Nazis to write history books concerning World War II.
Similarly, it is unacceptable that for hundreds of years. U.S. history has been written by the oppressors while leaving out mention of the oppressed other than to say “the oppression of these people was for their own good and the greater good.”
There is gross negligence on the part of the federal government in ensuring history is accurately represented. Treaties are upheld and promises are kept. Please, do not allow this legacy of disillusionment to become our own.
Unspeakable acts of abuse have been committed, and they continue to be committed. Dismantling of the policy and institutions allowing and participating in these crimes is essential. Bringing those individuals who still live to justice is imperative.
The return of sacred remains, land and property to the Native communities is undeniable. Power has been taken for hundreds of years from the Indigenous community; this stolen power must be restored. The lives of the thousands of Native children lost can never be regained, can never be repaid. They can only be remembered in the deepest sorrows. It is our sole purpose to ensure they are honored, respected and remembered properly. It is our sole purpose to be the voices of those who have for too long been forced into silence.
Be the voice for these stolen souls. They were just children. We will never be able to bring them home, but you can bring their abusers to justice. You can ensure another child never suffers this same fate again. We will never be able to bring peace to the families who for generations have suffered these harrowing losses, but you can bring them hope that their voices will be heard, their stories will be told, and their resilience will be remembered.
I urge you to be the catalyst that ignites true change, true healing for the Native community and the wielder of justice for those no longer with us: our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers, our daughters, our sons, our grandmothers, our grandfathers.
Be the voice for all who came before us, and be the hope for all those that will come after.
Immediate cessation of these genocidal practices against Native people is inarguably necessary. However, in accordance with closing Indian boarding schools and the dismantling of affiliated governmental and religious policies and practices associated with this predatory and corrupt system, justice demands reparations, restoration and reconciliation from the U.S. government and religious institutions that have been party to the violation of the human rights of all Indigenous peoples.
Reparations are needed to begin the process of redressing these egregious injustices to those Native communities and individuals that have survived hundreds of years of mass murder, forced death marches from ancestral lands, countless extreme human sufferings, the annihilation of communities and families, and the destruction of cultural, spiritual, emotional, intellectual and creative forces.
This requires all control and power over investigations and investigatory findings relating to Indian boarding schools in the U.S. to be given in full to Indigenous community leaders, tribal leaders, tribal organizations and appointed tribal representatives.
A technical advisory council made up of Indigenous community leaders, tribal leaders and tribal representatives — directly funded and aided in full by the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for assisting in all aspects of investigations regarding Indian boarding schools — must be immediately established.
All aspects of investigations must be public and transparent — this includes the full release of all federal records to the public. Current “no-research” policies designed to block information access to all records, data and materials related to Indian boarding schools must be abolished and instances of data blocking/denial of access to records are to be punished under the fullest extent of the law.
There is a history of documents, information and records related to governmental affairs with Indigenous populations conveniently disappearing when called to be found. Some buildings where financial records were held caught fire, unintentionally or intentionally destroying information — an example is spelled out in the court case Elouise Cobell v. Salazar, concerning U.S. mismanagement of trust funds of over 500,000 individual Native people.
Keeping this historic example in mind, there must be a full stop of the destruction of all records and evidence relating to Indian boarding schools including records of affiliated, sponsored and involved governmental, private, public and religious institutions, policies and practices. If any individual, entity or institution is found to have destroyed evidence or obstructed justice in any way throughout the investigative process, they are to be prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law.
There must be an immediate cessation of known policies and practices infringing upon and violating the basic human rights of Indigenous individuals, communities and tribes, including voting rights.
A complete list of all federal and religious institutions, entities, policies, practices and individuals directly involved with the implementation, oversight and continued operation of Indian boarding schools is to be publicly released and updated regularly as investigations continue.
A complete list of every Indian boarding school within the United States and all affiliated territories, including those listed under “mission” or other disingenuous names, must be compiled and publicly released posthaste.
Complete accountability for every child ever taken and boarded at an Indian boarding school including information, such as family history, tribe, reservation and state where the child was removed and attended an Indian boarding school is necessary. Public trials are to be held expeditiously, as prosecution is expected for any individual who through these investigations is implicated in criminal activity.
An anthology — an accurate representation — and a full rewrite from an Indigenous perspective of all U.S. history books involving Indigenous populations is demanded. This initiative should address all K-12 books and school curricula in which the United States has intentionally misinformed the public, and the content should reflect the human rights violations on which this country was built and continues to thrive upon.
This includes accurately updating textbooks, governmental information sites, resources, international information sites and resources. All human remains found — not just those found during the course of these investigations — but also of those that have been stored or put on display in museums around the world must be returned to the appropriate tribal entities and original inhabitants as stated in all treaties.
All land that was misappropriated or corruptly stolen under the 1887 Dawes Act, and all federal land that is no longer in use, be it a park or military base, is to be returned to the appropriate tribal entities and original inhabitants as stated in all treaties.
There must be public acknowledgment and apology by both governmental and religious institutions concerning their complicity and culpability in the abuse and extermination of Native people.
Closure is often a term mentioned when overcoming tragedy. Closure in this instance is defined as any interaction, attainment of knowledge, practice or exercise that allows an individual to feel as though a traumatic, distressing, or complicated life event has been fully resolved.
The term has origins in Gestalt psychology, but it is more commonly used to refer to “the final resolution to a conflict or problem.”
There will never be closure, at least not in the foreseeable future, for Native communities that for generations have lived these experiences and massacres, any more than there has been closure for the Holocaust survivors and the generations that followed.
What is being found at these residential schools in Canada is only an extension of a holocaust that Native people and Indigenous populations lived through that has replayed endlessly through cycles of substance abuse, addictions, generational disparities, chronic illnesses, violence, self-hatred, survivor’s guilt, cultural dissociation and unremitting grief.
Disorders such as depression, as well as physical and emotional trauma, which affect genetic function and expression, have led to generations of Indigenous populations carrying the psychological pain of their ancestors with them and physically through them.
There is no amount of reparations that can buy out governmental and religious organizations from their sins. There is no cost that can be assigned to the loss of a child and the generational trauma suffered by family and community. There can be no indulgences or forgiveness given for these brutalities.
The Indigenous community deserves the opportunity to heal.
I implore you again: Be the voice for these stolen souls. Demand justice and please, speak out for those whose laughter will never grace our ears, whose smiles we will never see shining, and whose hands we will never hold again.
We cannot do this alone, so today, I ask you for your help. Will you stand with us?
What you can do to help
We as a nation can no longer afford inaction. We as a people can no longer wait for justice to come to us. We must seek it out and demand it now. My colleagues and I have established this memorandum, which is directed to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, President Joseph Biden; Vice President Kamala Harris; Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III; Air Force Secretary John P. Roth; and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
With this memorandum as the foundation, we have established the Stolen Souls group on Facebook and published a petition to Biden and his current administration to Redress Colonialism Related to Indian Boarding Schools on Change.org.
Help bring our stolen souls home. Bring healing to our survivors and bring justice to our people.
To add your name to this memorandum manually, contact Katherine E. Connelly at email@example.com, or go to the memorandum link below.
To add your name to the petition manually, contact Katherine E. Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the petition link below.
Memorandum Link: https://form.jotform.com/212687798809175
Petition Link: https://www.change.org/StolenSouls
Stolen Souls Social Media Link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/284635300132082
Lead author Dean S. Seneca, MPH, MCURP, a Seneca Indian, is the CEO and founder of Seneca Scientific Solutions + and the treasurer of the Native Research Network. A professor at the University at Buffalo, he also enjoys teaching about Indigenous health disparities and dedicates his time to improving education concerning historical and intergenerational trauma as well as improving access to quality healthcare. He is an esteemed researcher and interprofessional collaborator within both the local and national epidemiological and health service communities. Facebook: Dean S. Seneca. Email: email@example.com
Coauthor Katherine E. Connelly, MPH, is the deputy director of science and public health at Seneca Scientific Solutions +. An avid science-communicator and alumni of the University at Buffalo, she passionately commits herself to research relating to Indigenous health disparities with specific focuses on intergenerational trauma and designing messaging campaigns concerning COVID-19, vaccines, and combating vaccine hesitancy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributing editor to Seneca and Connelly, Leora L. Tadgerson, a citizen of Gnoozhikaaning−Bay Mills, MI and Wiikwemkoong First Nations of Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada, serves as president of the board of directors for the Native Justice Coalition and is the interim director of the Student Equity & Engagement Center at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches at the Center for Native American Studies. A dedicated advocate for the linguistic and cultural revitalization of Indigenous nations, Tadgerson also dedicates her time to the Truth and Reconciliation Movement of Indian Boarding Schools through the Learning to Walk Together traveling exhibit and ongoing related research to advance authentic healing efforts of intergenerational trauma. Email: email@example.com
This opinion-editorial essay does not necessarily reflect the view of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email the opinion editor, Vincent Schilling, at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, read our submission guidelines here.