When Patricia Whitefoot learned about the remains of 215 children found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, she was devastated.
The children’s grave shocked the world, but for Whitefoot, the horror hit close to home.
As members of the Yakama Nation in Central Washington, Whitefoot’s family experienced firsthand the trauma of the U.S. boarding school experience, where Native American children were ripped from their families and forced to reject Native language and culture.
Whitefoot, who was raised by her maternal grandparents, said her grandmother told Whitefoot about having her mouth washed out with lye soap for speaking her native language at the Fort Simcoe Native boarding school in White Swan, Yakima County, in the early 1900s. Despite that abuse, Whitefoot’s grandparents continued to speak the Yakama language, though her grandmother was beaten in boarding school for doing so.
When Whitefoot was a child in the 1950s, she found herself living at the Yakima Indian Christian Mission, which she describes as a painful part of her life.
Separated from her family, once at the mission school, she only saw her grandparents periodically and during the summer.
“We also have unmarked graves of children, children who had been missing [in the U.S.]. And in those previous eras of life there wasn’t good accountability for the lives of the children in the boarding schools and then the mission schools. So damage has been done,” Whitefoot said.
The U.S. had 367 Native boarding schools, run by religious organizations or the U.S. government. Over 70 still operate today, the oldest continually operated one being Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. By the 1930s, an estimated two-thirds of Native people attended boarding schools at some point in their lives, according to a 2008 story in The Seattle Times.
The first U.S. government-run, off-reservation boarding school was Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School. Founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, his infamous motto, “Kill the Indian and save the man,” spoke volumes about the true purpose and brutality of these institutions.
“Killing the Indian” meant forced religious conversions, punishment for speaking Native languages, Anglicized name changes, indoctrination around Western values and ways of life and, of course, family separation. Sexual and physical abuse were also pervasive in the schools, survivors recounted.
A longtime educator, Whitefoot said it’s critical to see the schools within a larger historical context. Boarding schools were but “one part of that policy of assimilation or to exterminate us as a people,” she said.
Christine Diindissi McCleave is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation and the chief executive officer of the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
McCleave said people need to understand that the U.S. has its own missing children and its boarding schools were the model for the Canadian system.
“We absolutely know we have that here in the United States too, because the [National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition] has been doing our own research,” McCleave said. “And we know that a lot of schools had cemeteries. We know some of the graves are unmarked. And we know that when we talk to people — Native people in tribal communities, urban Native communities — that yes … almost everyone has a boarding school history in their family.”
McCleave’s own family has a history with boarding schools as well. Her grandfather went to a Catholic Indian boarding school and her great-grandfather was a student at Carlisle. In college, McCleave learned more about the impact of boarding schools on Native spirituality and Christianity.
“When I started reading about it, I cried because it’s a horrible history to read about, to hear about, but as a Native person, it just hits different,” she said.
“It just hits you differently because for me, it really made me realize that this explains a lot of the intergenerational trauma, the grief, the sadness that I grew up with, that I felt in my family, in my ancestry. It really explained a lot of it,” McCleave said. “And so a lot of times what we do is we educate Native people about the history so that they can make sense of their own family history.”
McCleave said some struggle to understand how families could give up their children. But what people don’t realize is that the U.S. government used force and coercion to break up families. She said there were laws that required families to send their children to boarding school, or face punishments like losing food rations or being incarcerated.
Pratt may have seen himself as a savior, but McCleave said “he was just switching out straight genocide for cultural genocide.”
In order to heal, McCleave wants the U.S. to move forward on a commission proposed in late 2020 by then-U. S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to “investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices” of the U.S. government’s boarding school policy. In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2008 to address the harm of residential schools, as part of a settlement agreement that awarded $3 billion to 28,000 victims of the system.
In 2015, the Seattle City Council approved a resolution drafted by Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota) to acknowledge “harms and ongoing historical and intergenerational traumas” due to the boarding school era on American Indians, First Nations and Alaskan Native people.
The damage from the boarding and residential school policies is multigenerational and pervasive. But try as they might to use every tool to eradicate Native language and culture, Pratt and his successors failed.
Native language and cultural revitalization are on the rise. Whitefoot may have lost some of her ability to speak the Yakama language, but her children and grandchildren are learning.
But for true healing to be successful, we must face our history.
As McCleave said, “Nothing’s going to change unless we actually go through that process of confronting the truth and confronting our past and looking at how it’s affected Native people in this country.”