Tag Archives: boarding schools

Just Kids: The Story of Two Onondaga Women who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

THEY WERE JUST KIDS. That is something that leaps off the page when you look at their student files. Delia and Florence Edwards, two Onondaga sisters, arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in December of 1909 and May of 1910, respectively. Delia was fourteen years old, Florence 13.

            They were not dragged to Carlisle. State officials did not forcefully remove them from their homes. Like many of the young people who came to Carlisle, a parent signed them up.  The girls attended the Onondaga Nation School for a couple of years, and then the Mindenville School District in the Mohawk Valley before they came to Carlisle.  By the time the girls arrived, Carlisle required all students to have had several years of prior schooling and fluency in English. David Russel Hill, an Onondaga chief, the leader of the Onondaga Indian Band, and an advocate for Indian education, wrote on both of the girls’ applications that they had “advanced beyond the required studies.” If they wished to continue their schooling, he suggested, Carlisle may have been the best and the only opportunity open to them.

RECENT MONTHS have witnessed the discovery of more than 1300 unmarked graves at the site of a number of Canadian residential schools. The discoveries, according to a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen, are proof of what First Nations people have been saying for a long time: “That Canada’s Indian Residential Schools spent nearly a century overseeing shockingly high rates of death among their students, with the bodies of the dead routinely withheld from their families and home communities.”  In part because of the outcry these discoveries sparked, the American Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced an initiative to “address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.” Haaland cautioned that the work would be difficult and time-consuming. Nothing, she said, will “undo the heartbreak and loss we feel.” Nonetheless, she said, “only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud of.”

            The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will investigate “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” These schools, said Bryan Newland, the Principal Deputy Assistant for Indian Affairs, were intended to “culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”  “Hundreds of thousands” of Indian children, Newland said, were taken from their communities. The Interior Department will work to collect the relevant documents, locate possible burial sites, and try to set the record straight.”

            This is a worthwhile project, one of the only times in American history where an agency of the federal government has pledged to take an honest look at its history, collect the evidence, and allow for a true accounting of this part of the nation’s past. It is stunning, really. Having spent much of my work time the last year or so reading through Carlisle student files, this will be complicated and in many ways difficult work.  And it may force many people to reconsider what they know to be true about Indian boarding schools.

CARLISLE WAS ABOUT 250 MILES south of the Onondaga Nation Territory, so Delia and Florence traveled less far than most of the 10,000 students who attended the school between 1879, when it opened, and 1918, when it closed.

            It is difficult to discern much about the girls’ lives before Carlisle.  Their Onondaga mother had died from heart disease, and they were being raised by their Mohawk father on the Nation Territory. We know which schools they attended, and that they were Protestants, though the denomination is not clear.

            A military officer named Richard Henry Pratt founded the school to “kill the Indians and save the man.”  Speaking to a gathering of Baptist ministers in 1883, Pratt said that “in Indian Civilization, I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them until they are thoroughly soaked.” The best that Pratt could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who attended Carlisle was that with proper training they might be formed into something else, and he boasted of his ability to do just that.

Carlisle’s Founder, Richard Henry Pratt

            Pratt was an energetic and effective promoter of the school. He produced before and after photographs of Carlisle students, the first depicting the child in their traditional dress, the second with their hair cut, their faces cleaned, and dressed in Carlisle’s school uniform. Pratt claimed that Carlisle took “savage” and “wild” Indians and transformed them into civilized individuals, ready for citizenship and productive employment in the American republic.  His school, according to a newspaper article announcing its opening, “will endeavor to save the Indians from extermination by educating young Indians, who can grow up to be leaders of their people and direct them to civilization.”  In reality, the largest numbers of students came from Iroquois communities, eastern Cherokees, and the Oneidas in Wisconsin.  These young people spoke and wrote in English when they arrived, were members of Christian denominations, and familiar with farming.

            Pratt needed to promote his efforts. Contrary to popular belief, policy-makers began to criticize off-reservation boarding schools as educational institutions. Early twentieth century commissioners of Indian Affairs and secretaries of the interior, for instance, much preferred reservation day schools, which were less expensive because they allowed children to return home at the end of the day, and because they better prepared the students for life in American society. Francis Leupp, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1905 that “it is a great mistake to try, as man good persons of bad judgment have tried, to start the little ones in the path of civilization by snapping all the ties of affection between them and their parents, and teaching them to despise the aged and nonprogressive members of their families.” Pratt retired five years before the Edwards sisters arrived, at a time when boarding schools faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from reformers, political leaders, and of course Native peoples themselves, who viewed them as retrograde institutions, dated and of questionable value compared to the benefits of schools closer to home.

            Students at Carlisle spent only some of their time on school grounds. Much of their time was spent on their various “Outing” placements, where they were sent to live with white families to learn a craft or a trade or, in the case of women, basic housewifery.  If they were old enough, they attended schools near their patrons’ home.  Delia attended Moorestown High School in New Jersey, and Florence attended Haddonfield High.

            Delia’s patrons found her “headstrong and self-willed,” but capable of doing well when she tried.  Another thought she was “a great child and tries to please.” Florence spent time in Jenkinstown and Kennet Square, Pennsylvania, and at a couple of sites in New Jersey.  One of her patrons, in 1910, told the Carlisle field agent, whose job it was to check in on students, that “Florence is not satisfactory, she is not very strong, is at a critical period in her life.” The thirteen year old was “willing,” but just not capable, in the eyes of her patron, to provide enough help.  “She is very untidy about her person & work.”  A year later, however, a new patron in Beverley, New Jersey, reported that she was very fond of Florence, and found her “a good obedient child, a little slow, but tries and is improving.”

One of Delia Edwards’ records cards, listing her outing assignments and patrons’ addresses.

            Florence may have struggled at times during her placements, but she took advantage of the opportunities Carlisle presented. She wrote for the student newspaper. She received a prize for one of her essays from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  She was an active member of Carlisle’s YWCA chapter, and at one meeting led the students in a lecture on “the heroes of the Bible.” She was also a member of the Mercers, where she practiced “Declamation.”  IN 1914, she gave a reading in the auditorium of her essay, “Is it Worth While?” (The paper gave no sense of what “it” was). In January of 1915 she led the Protestant service at the school “and also gave a fine little talk.” She must have been a magnetic figure, filled with charisma. People liked her.

            Both of the girls went home for the summer of 1915.  By September they were back at school and both had moved on to their next placements.  In October of 1915, the Carlisle Arrow ran a report of students staying in the school’s hospital.  Florence “who came in from the county,” was one of them.  She was “now up,” and, according to Agnes Owl, “was only lonesome for Carlisle.”

            Turned out it was much more serious.  Florence had contracted tuberculosis, the dread disease that killed 194 out of every 100,000 Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lawrence Edwards, her father, began to hear that his daughter was ill. In November he wrote to the school’s superintendent, asking for information.  He had heard nothing from Florence, but “others are telling me she is sick.” Two weeks later, on the sixth of December in 1915, the Superintendent wrote back. Florence was cured, but he told Mr. Edwards that he thought it advisable “to let your daughter…have a complete rest in order that she regain her physical strength.” He was sending her home to Onondaga.

            Delia, it turned out, was sick as well. Mrs. Lippincott, one of her patrons, sent Delia to the hospital.  She complained of abdominal pain. It was appendicitis, and she had surgery in November.  She recovered well. While Florence journeyed home to rest, Delia returned to her patron. She wanted to go back to Carlisle. She wrote to her friend Lucy Lenoir, a Chippewa student.  The letters are wonderful.  Delia was a relentless kidder, always ready to affectionately tease her friend.  And she was bored to tears at time doing housework for her patron. “I wish we could be there for the social which will be the last Saturday” of January. Earlier, she told Lucy, she had broken up with her boyfriend. “We certainly would make a hit on some swell guys,” she wrote.  But getting back to Carlisle was more difficult than it should have been.  The superintendent saw no reason for her to return to the school. Her patrons reported that her work was good, and that she was succeeding in her studies.  Delia told Lucy that “I am so darn sick of country life I believe I’d die if I stay here much longer.” Maybe, she wrote, “I’ll play sick and see if I can’t go back to Carlisle.”  She missed her friends. A short time later she wrote to Lucy again, saying “Dearie, I have no idea where I will be when you open this letter, but if I am not in my grave I will be at dear old Carlisle.”

            Delia would not make it back to Carlisle until June. In May of 1916, Lawrence wrote to the superintendent.  “My daughter Florence is very low now and I wish to have Delia come to her before anything happens.” Delia was summoned back to the school, where she arrived on the First of June. She returned home to the Nation Territory on June 6.

One month later, Florence died. “She had been ill for about ten months,” Delia wrote. “She certainly wanted to get well so she could return to Carlisle in the fall to graduate with her class next spring.”  She told the superintendent that it was hard for her to lose a sister.  “Father and I are trying our best to bear it,” she wrote, “but life is not ours so we will have to take things as they come.”  Her sister had returned to Carlisle from her outing assignment with a fatal illness. The school’s records document the names of the children who died there. Still, Delia could not wait to return.  Like many of the Onondagas who attended Carlisle, she missed the school when she was not there. She was nineteen years old. In the very same letter in which she expressed her grief at her sister’s death, she told the Superintendent that “I will try to return the latter part of September to Carlisle to continue my studies.” She wanted to “be placed with the graduating class as I certainly worked hard this winter with my studies at the Moorestown High School.”  She wanted confirmation that she could return, so she asked the superintendent to “let me know if I can be entered in the ‘Fourth Year vocational’ class and I will return just as soon as I can before I get too far behind with my studies.” She hoped as well that the school would consider admitting her stepsister Elsie.  Carlisle mattered to Delia.

The last letter in Delia’s Carlisle file, announcing Florence’s death, and how she wanted to recover well enough to return.

She never returned to “dear old Carlisle.” She was told that she did not have “sufficient credits to enter the class which is to complete the course in another year.”  She should return to Moorestown High School and then, at “the opening of the year you will be given the opportunity to take whatever work for which you are prepared.” Her last date of attendance was listed as May 31, 1916. It is not hard to believe that when Carlisle closed a short time later, she may have seen this as a loss for her people. As Onondaga chief Jesse Lyon asked, “Why was Carlisle closed? Nobody know,” he said.   “Too good for Indian, maybe, but that is what Indian needs.”

THE STORY OF CARLISLE is not a simple one. As historians we know to be attuned to ambiguity and ambivalence.  It is proper to view boarding schools as American institutions directed toward cultural genocide—the erasure of Native American culture, values, and beliefs.  It attempted to play that role.  But it did not always do succeed. Students were homesick, at times.  Some ran away from the school, especially the boys. Some returned to their communities feeling as if they no longer belonged. Yet there were Onondagas who ran away from home to get to Carlisle.  Some of those runaways were not heading home, but to visit girlfriends.  It is proper then, to view Carlisle as well as a flawed institution which Native American students attended to receive an education and learn crafts and trades, or to play sports or to play music, opportunities that were often closed to them elsewhere.  More than one thing can be true at a time. Carlisle took and it gave, but it neither destroyed nor erased, the Onondagas who attended it between 1879 and 1918. The Interior Department’s Boarding School Initiative will need to be attuned to the school’s ambivalent legacy.

“We Need To Take Away Children”

As a nation we have always claimed that we need to take away children. The New York Times yesterday ran a deeply disturbing story examining closely the Trump Administration’s “Family Separation Policy” supported most forcefully by then-Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. “We need to take away children,” Sessions told prosecutors at the Mexican border. If people crossing the border cared about their kids, the Attorney General said that they would not have brought them. It did not matter how young. It did not matter if they were in diapers, or if they still were nursing. It did not matter what horrors in their homeland they ran from. And when called to account these Trump administration officials lied about it. They knew it was morally abhorrent, but they did it anyways.

It was a stunning story. It was not a surprising one.

Jeff Sessions fired by Donald Trump: Here's what we know now

One could write a history of North America, with the cruelty meted out on the children of peoples of color as the narrative thread weaving the entire horrifying tapestry together. Cruelty towards children runs through the entire story.

It rests at the center of the trade in human flesh central to this nation’s founding. Children ripped from parents. There is no way to excuse these horrifying crimes.

There is Columbus, whose big day is just around the corner. He looked at a child swimming, a little girl, and saw only that she would make a suitable slave. He scooped up Indigenous children, packed them aboard his ships, and sent them back for sale in Iberian markets. There is the murder of Paspahegh children by armed colonists from Jamestown. The colonist George Percy appeased his men, angry at taking any prisoners at all, by allowing them to throw these children into the James River and shoot them in the head. I think of the burning of Mystic fort in 1637, of so many other massacres of native peoples across the continent, where Native children fell beside their parents, victims of a style of warfare practiced without restraint by “civilized” peoples against their “savage” enemies. “Nits grow into lice,” the perpetrator of one of those massacres reportedly said. I think of the slaughter of Christian Conestogas by the Paxton Boys, the mass murder at Gnaddenhutten, the epidemics that carried off native children and sparked the Ghost Dance among their grieving parents, or the boarding schools where American officials so confident in their deluded good intentions collected and removed indigenous children from their homes. And today, when we can read of the murder of native peoples by well-armed police, the too-frequent disappearance or murder of Native American women and girls in both Canada and the United States, and the travesty of South Dakota’s treatment of Native American families in its foster care system. It is exhausting.

When I teach I tell my students about George Percy. That weak and cowardly aristocrat who settled at Jamestown led a raid by an English party against the Paspahegh Indians, whose town stood a short distance upriver from that sickly fortified settlement.  Percy’s soldiers took the “Queen of Paspahegh” and her children hostage but his men began to grumble.  He gave in to them, threw the children overboard, and allowed his men to entertain themselves by “shooting out their brains in the water.”  I tell them of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in December 1763.  The Paxton men killed fourteen of them: men, women, and a couple of children, no more than three years old.  The Paxton Boys split their skulls with tomahawks, and took their scalps as trophies.  This was intimate violence, acts committed at close range. To children.  To babies.  In order to help my students make sense of the Ghost Dance, I tell the students about the movement that occurred on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation.  Among the Kiowa ghost dancers were a lot of parents, and they danced on the snowy ground hoping to see, once again, the children who had died, innocents slaughtered by measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  Grief lay at the broken heart of the Ghost Dance movement.  And of course that grief continues.  Harold Napoleon, in Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being, a book that will break your heart as it educates you, described Alaska Native communities immersed still in a grief caused by what he called “the Great Death.”

We cannot teach the past without considering the pain, the grief, and the sadness that people felt. If we want to reach our students, we need to help them feel history as they learn it, to consider those moments of brutality and violence and sadness. And in so many ways, this current president and his cascading collection of war criminals, grifters, and cruel incompetents forces us to realize that the pain we teach and write about is still very much present and very much alive. They feed on the misery they cause, find justification in your suffering. There is so very much at stake in the approaching election.

So, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt of Carlisle Indian School Fame Literally used to live around the Corner.

            Because I teach a first year writing seminar at my college on the history of the Carlisle Boarding School, I have spent a fair amount of time reckoning with the words and deeds of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the Indian’s school’s founder and chief propagandist. 

            The school’s history fascinates me.  In my own research on the history of the Onondaga Nation, I have followed those who attended the school through its records and reconstructed their lives as much as the evidence permits.  Like my students, I make use of the digitized school records available at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

            One thing I have not done is visit Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Pratt’s personal papers are housed.  I have read his published writings, and in them I find it difficult to detect any self-doubt, any questioning, of the school’s fundamental premise: to best prepare Native American men and women for citizenship and participation in the American body politic and economic system, they must be removed from their homes and educated away from the reservation. 

Pratt was quite explicit about this.  The attachments of home generated a powerful pull. Even boarding schools located on reservations could not work, Pratt believed, because the sights, sounds, and scents of home provided a powerful distraction.  Best to remove the students entirely.  Speaking to a gathering of Baptist ministers, Pratt said that “In Indian Civilization, I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them until they are thoroughly soaked.”  Because of his tendency to make statements like these, scholars and the interested public describe the boarding schools as brutal institutions.  Pratt, they say, acted with genocidal intent.  He said, indeed, that he hoped to “kill the Indian,” and save the man.

There is no doubt that there was cruelty, brutality and short-sightedness.  There was coldness and callousness and inattention. Some students resisted.  One of my students is working on a paper I very much look forward to reading on firestarters, girls who set fires at Carlisle and were expelled.  Yet the graveyard at the school contains the bodies of students who died far from home, the victims, in Calvin Luther Martin’s phrase, of “blundering goodwill.”  Efforts are underway to repatriate some of these children, to return their bodies to their homelands. There are stories at Carlisle to melt a historian’s heart.

At the same time, we historians generally find simple morality tales uninteresting, because the past is always more complicated.  For example, I recently reviewed a book by a historian named Keith Burich about the Thomas Indian School in New York, located on the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Reservation. Thomas was open for a century, from the 1850s to the 1950s.  There are people alive today who attended Thomas.  The consequences of the school’s treatment of Iroquois children, Burich writes, were horrific.  The school’s policies and its approach created in the students “a state of dependency and perpetual childhood that guaranteed the students’ inability to adjust to life outside the institution.”  Arriving at Thomas from families broken by the forces of colonialism, “the same ‘pathologies’ that landed them at Thomas—poverty, divorce, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence—followed them when they left, ensuring that there would be future generations of Thomas students.” 

Yet the evidence that Burich provides suggests that he may not be attuned enough to the school’s ambivalent legacy. The Mohawk Andrew Herne, disappointed by the public school opportunities at home, hitchhiked to Thomas to enroll.  Burich points out that for many of the children, “Thomas provided a far better educational opportunity than the public schools on or near their respective reservations.”  The Seneca Arthur Nephew remembered the school as the best part of his life.  “We were taken care of, we had shelter, we had food, we had medical care, we had all kinds of recreation, and all kind of trades we could learn,” he wrote. Thus it appears that Burich’s claim that the school left children “unable to survive outside an institutional setting where every aspect of their lives was dictated and controlled by the institution” is an oversimplification at best, that underestimates the resilience and toughness of Iroquois families and children. His claim that the school left its students shattered in self-esteem and “unable to adjust to life after Thomas” seems inadequately supported and, indeed, contradicted by some of the evidence he presents. There was suffering to be sure, as Iroquois people have pointed out.  But there was more to Thomas than that.

And Carlisle, too.

Pratt left Carlisle in 1904. Robert Utley, who wrote the introduction to the University of Oklahoma Press edition of Pratt’s From Battlefield to Classroom said that the school’s founder “retired.”  Technically that is correct. But Pratt left under duress, and a number of powerful critics of the entire off-reservation boarding school enterprise had emerged in the early twentieth century, most notably Francis Leupp, who served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Utley said that Pratt retired to Rochester, New York, where I live. Other sources say the same thing. The Rochester Public Library has done an incredible job of digitizing its local history resources, so I set off in search of the retired Colonel Pratt.  His name does not appear in any of the published city directories, nor does that of his wife or any of his children.  I asked friends for help, and I followed some other leads, but still no luck. Where was Colonel Pratt? I did not know, and I worried that Utley might have been wrong.

I am fairly certain that if I had limitless time and limitless resources, and no family and no need to do things other than history, I could have made the trip over to New Haven.  I bet there are answers there about Pratt’s time in Rochester.  But I don’t, and I couldn’t, so I didn’t, and the staff at Yale did not answer my email queries.

I poked around a bit more and I found what I was looking for in the newspapers.  Pratt had daughters, and they married. It did not take long to figure out that his son-in-law Edward M. Hawkins lived in Rochester, on Highland Avenue, a five-minute bicycle ride from where I live (I know. I tried it).

I am not sure how much time Pratt spent in town, but he was in Rochester often. In retirement he spoke out against the Indian Bureau, and the “ethnologists” whose work informed the critiques of Pratt’s program for Carlisle.  Long after off-reservation boarding schools had fallen out of favor, he continued to champion the entire effort as worthwhile and significant. He was proud of Carlisle, and he seems to have kept in touch with former students and even attended a reunion of former Carlisle students in 1913 in Akron, New York, near the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.

Just a couple of dozen Tonawandas attended Carlisle.  More than three hundred went to Thomas.  Of those who went to Carlisle their experiences seem to have mirrored those of other Haudenosaunee people who attended the boarding school. Some appreciated their time at the school and expressed their gratitude to Pratt and to his successors as superintendent. Daisie Doctor Snyder, for instance, in 1907 expressed her regret that she would not be able to return to Carlisle for that year’s commencement ceremony. She missed “Dear Old Carlisle,” and wrote that “I only hope this Commencement will surpass all others, and that the out going class are prepared to stand the hard knocks of the cold world and to fight a hard battle for the right and also to still uplift our race.  Rosalie Doctor Poodry invited the administrators at Carlisle to visit her at her handsome, two-story frame house in Basom, New York, and said that she would love to send her children to Carlisle someday. She sent the superintendent a postcard,

with a photograph of the house.  The baby, a little girl named Marion, had died a few weeks before she mailed the card, and Rosalie understandably still was broken up.  As much as she looked forward to reading the school newspapers that she received in the mail, she asked that they not say anything about her dead child.

            Rosalie Doctor Poodry’s letter was intimate and revealing. Other Tonawandas told the school what they were up to, but did not share too much more than that.  Hiram Moses was farming forty-five acres of reservation land, and working when needed on the state highway.  He attended the Presbyterian church on the reservation. Joseph Poodry lived in Buffalo.  He worked at the Pierce Arrow plant there, and managed the Seneca Indian baseball team.

            Others said little about their time at the school, chose not to keep in touch, and did not reply to the school’s questionnaires.  Many of them returned to the reservation and lived lives that would have differed little from what they might have experienced had they never gone away to school  Some succeeded, and attributed their successes to what they learned at Carlisle.  Others did not do so well.  Perhaps their hardships stemmed from the dislocation caused by the years they spent away, or the difficulties they faced in reintegrating themselves into the community after they returned.

            Yet despite the boarding school experience, the criticism of their culture they routinely listened to there, and their years away from home, Tonawanda remained an indigenous homeland.  Despite the efforts of the state to break up their lands and dispossess them, a story the Tonawandas knew all too well, they remained native peoples.  And they asserted this, publicly and frequently, in ways that Pratt could not have missed.

            Colonel Pratt is one of the villains in Native American history.  He spoke of eliminating Native American cultures, and carried out his policies, for a time, with the enthusiastic support of American officials. But if he really believed the erasure of Indian identity was an attainable goal, he could not have missed the reality that he failed spectacularly.  His legacy is ambiguous, and defies easy categorization.

            Every year, Tonawanda Senecas came into Rochester. I am pretty certain they were in town when Pratt was there, too.  The Tonawandas went to Maplewood Park, one of the city’s popular gathering places.  They set up a stage. They advertised their gathering in the papers, and the press attended and described what they saw.  The Tonawandas routinely adopted and granted names to powerful white men, like Mayor Hiram Edgerton, in this photo housed in the collections of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. And as white Rochesterians gathered, and watched Indian

teams play baseball and demonstrate their lacrosse skills, and as they purchased the baskets and other items of craft produced by Tonawanda Seneca women, the Tonawandas danced.

            The men wore ribbon shirts and their gustoweh. Women wore their calico dresses, their moccasins. They dressed in the traditional attire of Haudenosaunee people, with a few Plains-style feather headdresses thrown in for good measure.  I like to think that Pratt, if he was in town, would have attended. He liked native peoples, after all, and liked to meet with former students.  And in front of him, and white audiences who easily imagined that native peoples were part of the past, and who supported the allotment of their lands, the dissolution of aboriginal culture, and the erasure of their language, they gathered in the center of Rochester.  They danced, and they proceeded to proclaim that they were still here, and that here they would remain. They were supposed to have been gone long before.  If warfare or the dispossession of the nineteenth century didn’t get them, assuredly they would disappear as the century progressed.  But here they were, in the middle of an important industrial city, announcing to all who cared to watch that anything the forces of colonialism might throw at them, they would survive as native peoples.

The Allure of the Archives, and the Accompanying Responsibility

I recently finished reading Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives. It’s a beautiful little book, written originally in French, translated into English by Thomas Scott-Railton.

Farge’s journey into the archives brought her into contact with the denizens of 18th century Paris, ordinary men and women who entered the historical record only because they found themselves dragged before authorities as accusers and victims, witnesses or perpetrators. They came to advocate for their cause, to protect or recover their property, to seek redress, or vengeance, or, at times, to save their lives.  Farge describes the people of Paris, but her experiences in the archives and the lessons she drew from the people she encountered there—men and women who appear fleetingly and incompletely in the judicial records–are wise and wonderful enough to be useful to all students of the past, whatever field they study.  I can imagine using Farge’s book the next time I teach the freshman writing seminar.

The allure of the archives, Farge writes, “is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime.  There is an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words, in confrontations with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era.”

Farge describes the rituals and mechanics of archival work, and she describes archival etiquette, at least for an era before digital cameras became commonplace. But the book’s beauty lies in its account of Farge’s interactions with the archives’ inhabitants, the ordinary French men and women who show up in bits and pieces in the surviving records.  “The incompleteness of the archive,” she writes, paradoxically “coexists right alongside the abundance of documents.”  Tell me about it.  Historians write down quotations from these documents, and “the proper usage of documents is similar to the inlaying of precious stones: a quotations only truly takes on meaning and significance if it fills a role that nothing else could.”  Historical scholarship is a discipline and a craft and, for Farge, it is a reflective process.  Those working in the archives must remain conscious of what they are doing, and the consequences that may result from their carelessness.  We hold these forgotten lives in our hands. That is a privilege that comes with great responsibility.

History is never the simple repetition of archival content, but a pulling away from it, in which we never stop asking how and why these words came to wash ashore on the manuscript page. One must put the archive aside for a while, in order to better think on one’s own terms, and later draw everything together. If you have a taste for the archives, you feel a need for these alternating tasks of exclusion and reintegration of documents and writing, as you add your own style to the thoughts that emerge.

Still, so many people you meet in the archives, so many stories.  “What can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movements?” She likens these images to silhouettes on a wall or the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and then disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.

I get it. My colleagues who write about Native American history will sympathize.  In so many archives, in so many collections of documents, in parish registers, burial records, transcripts of diplomatic encounters, bits of correspondence scattered here and there, receipts, school records, and even newspapers, thousands of lives, thousands of individuals, will appear fleetingly, saying little or nothing at all, words recorded by people with limited understanding of the peoples whose stories they tell.

These lives are difficult to reconstruct, I know, as I work through the many thousands of pages of documents I have collected to write my Onondaga book. It is difficult and demanding work.  We work to recover larger pictures from scattered or broken fragments. But as I look small, I look large, too.  We wrestle with the challenge of understanding the relationship between these individuals and the larger societal forms to which they belonged as native peoples.

It is easy to write the history of native peoples as objects acted upon by non-native actors.  Writing that sort of history, however, privileges the forces of colonialism and the voices speaking in behalf of that process.

Farge has given me a lot to think about as I continue to read my sources and work on my history of the Onondaga Nation.

The Onondagas, as a community, experienced warfare, disease, and dispossession.  They endured efforts to break up their reservation, to individualize them and destroy their national identity, and to transform them into something else.  They confronted the State of New York’s efforts to extend its laws over their lands and the decisions of nearby business interests that destroyed Onondaga Creek.  Telling these stories requires detailed examination of the many thousands of pages of documents and an enormous amount of reading, but the work itself is not particularly difficult.  The views of white policy makers and power brokers are uncovered with relative ease.  The challenging part is reconstructing the lives of the thousands of individuals who cross the pages in the sources I read, and who interacted with these larger forces.

History: It’s the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  To tell these stories of continuity and change, to give them real meaning, requires a close examination of the small pieces, the individual pebbles on the beach.  Boarding schools were terrible, we are told, instruments of cultural-genocide marching under the guise of benevolence.  Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle School, and I read his propaganda and his reports, all the paper detritus of his campaign to “kill the Indian and save the man.”  The best he could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who came to Carlisle was that they might be formed into something else. Pratt’s words are difficult to read, knowing that his blundering arrogance shattered so many lives and caused so much grief.

But I also need to look at the young men and women who clearly wanted to go to Carlisle because it offered them an opportunity to acquire a trade, to improve themselves.  The records exist.  We can see the Carlisle students who ran away from their “outing system” placements because they were homesick or were needed at home or because they hated their overseers, or fell in love with a fellow student working at a place not far away.  It requires telling the stories of those Onondagas who missed the school once they left, who pestered the school’s administrators to send them copies of the student newspaper, and who attended Carlisle games when the team was close enough for them to make the trip.  We must consider of the stories of those who were sent home because they were sick or rebellious or because they drank too much.  It requires placing one set of difficult readings against another and against yet another still, cobbling the pieces together into some sort of sensible whole.

Sometimes, the people who appear in these records have children and grandchildren still living.  As historians, drawn in by the allure of the archives, we are voyeurs and witnesses, and we will uncover stories that if shared carelessly can produce grief and pain and sadness. If we view our trips into the archive like a raid or a treasure hunt–and I will admit to feeling this way during my 5:00am drives down the Thruway from Rochester to Albany–we risk becoming exploitative, engaging in a sort of colonial enterprise.  These documents are not ours, and the stories we fashion from the lives we see in bits and pieces do not belong to us alone.  As we share these stories, and shape our careers as historians on the backs of the people about whom we write, we must remember our obligations, and the seriousness of our enterprise.

Many of my friends are historians, and many of us, I believe, identify closely with the work that we do and the subjects that we teach.  It is part of what makes us what and who we are.  We think about our work a lot, maybe too much for those with whom we share our lives.  We can obsess and lose sleep as we think about the questions that can only be answered by a sojourn in the archives. We must be honest: as historians, we are nothing without these stories.  Arlette Farge’s book reminded me of these obligations, and the deep and alluring connections that exist between the people we write about and the stories we tell, what we do and how we see ourselves.

 

Visiting Carlisle, One Click at a Time

I have written at length on this blog about the boarding school experience, mostly in light of recent Canadian efforts to recover and digitize an enormous documentary record and discuss its implications fully enough to arrive at some sort of truth and reconciliation for the suffering these institutions unquestionably caused. While acknowledging the limitations of these initiatives, I have been largely positive in my assessment, and I have lamented that no similar accounting has taken place in the United States.  As a nation we do not talk about our history enough.

That is why I was so excited to learn about the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center based at Dickinson College.  Dickinson is located in Carlisle and houses an enormous amount of material connected to the school in its archives.  This wonderful project, under the direction of Dickinson College Archivist Jim Gerencser, Sociology Professor Susan Rose, and Special Collections Librarian Malinda Triller Doran, brings the sources together from a host of archives for a frank discussion of boarding schools and the involvement of the American government in them.

About a decade and a half ago, I took an interest in the student records from the Carlisle school. At the time I was conducting research on an Indian best known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. Sylvester Long Student Information Card I ordered Long Lance’s student file from his time at Carlisle from the National Archives. It was expensive and it took some time.

I was drawn to Long Lance’s story because the other works looking at his career had, it seemed to me, missed the heartbreak and the drama at the heart of his story, one that I felt was so rich not only for understanding Native American history and the history of race in America, but also how one flawed man navigated the restricted racial pathways of the United States in the early twentieth century. (So much scholarship, students, finds its origins in a historian’s dissatisfaction with something he or she has read).Image result for Buffalo child long lance

And here he was: grade reports, news clippings about his career after he left Carlisle, and the lengthy correspondence between school officials and others attempting to discern Long Lance’s true heritage. He had claimed a series of identities over the course of his varied career: Croatan, Lumbee, Cherokee, and, ultimately, Blackfeet.  Some, however, aware that he had been born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1890 as Sylvester Long, suspected that he was a black man playing Indian to avoid the racial confines of the segregated south.  Long Lance left Carlisle as the pressure and the questions mounted, joining the Canadian expeditionary force that went to France to fight in the first World War.

Long Lance never succeeded in escaping these suspicions. Indeed, much of his career ought to be viewed as a series of attempts to prove the authenticity of an Indian identity that carried him through more and more grandiose efforts to conform to white stereotypes about who Indians were and what they ought to be.  As a Croatan, a Lumbee or a Cherokee; as Sylvester Long or Sylvester Long Lance or Buffalo Child Long Lance; as a Wild West performer, a soldier, a boxer and a chief: he never seemed Indian enough in his own eyes or in the eyes of the many people who watched his self-made celebrity grow.

He ended up in Southern California, the toy-boy of the wealthy Anita Baldwin, a Los Angeles heiress who hired Long Lance to accompany her and keep her company, an exotic ornament she could display to her friends.  It was in her house, which stood on land that is now part of the Los Angeles County Arboretum, where he committed suicide in 1931. Though most accounts suggest that he ended his life because he could not escape suspicions about his “blackness,” that his “ethnic transvestism” had been at last unmasked, it is more likely that he was a forty-year-old man who felt that he had passed his prime, who had lost his opportunity at true love with a woman who simply did not care about his race at all.  Alone and on the downward slide: men have killed themselves for far less.

Fifty years later, crew members filming the television series “Fantasy Island” on the grounds of what had been the Baldwin estate claimed to have seen Long Lance’s ghost, dressed in the regalia of a Blackfeet Chief, astride his pony.  In death if not in life, Long Lance may have made a convincing Indian.

The value of these Carlisle records is that they allow the historian who is willing to dig and poke around, and accept that frustration and dead-ends are part of the historian’s enterprise, to reconstruct the lives of individual native people at a time when they government and its agents wanted them to assimilate and disappear, whether that individual is notorious like Long Lance, or little-known like the scores of Onondaga Indians who attended the school.

117 Onondagas attended the Carlisle Indian School.  Most of them were male, almost all of them teenagers.  Most of them had attended the day school on the Onondaga Nation territory south of Syracuse, New York, before enrolling. Some of them had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus Reservation, a boarding school operated by the state of New York. Colonel Pratt, the school’s founder, liked to show his supporters before-and-after photographs of “wild” Indians transformed into uniformed and short-haired students. Pratt told anyone who would listen that his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man,” replacing their savagery with civility.

Except that he didn’t. Pratt was a tenacious self-promoter. He was also, in my book, a liar, and too many historians who have not looked at the school’s records have allowed him to get away with it.  As the information on the Onondagas shows, the students who came to his came to his school often had attended day schools or other educational institutions before coming to Carlisle.  They could speak, read, and write in English, many of them better than most of the college freshmen I see. They were often members of Christian congregations on the reservation.  Many of them knew how to far.  In addition to learning crafts, they studied algebra, grammar, and spelling.

I am working on a history of Onondaga, from the earliest days of the Iroquois League up to the present. In writing a story that covers more than five hundred years it is easy to lose sight of individuals, to focus instead on the larger strands a historian can pull and weave in order to produce a compelling narrative.  The individuals who emerge in stories such as these, in Native American history as in other fields, are often elites, leaders, and men mostly, who interacted with the white people who produced the documentary record upon which we historians rely.

In these Carlisle records, we can see inside the homes of ordinary Onondagas. We can hear their thoughts, see their concerns.  We can see the poverty, the hard work needed to scrape by in central New York, or the difficulty in finding the six or seven bucks it took to buy a ticket home from Carlisle to Syracuse, when a parent needed the help of his or her child. We see parents earnestly imploring  Carlisle’s superintendent to treat their children well when word arrived that the kid had fallen ill–from an abscessed tooth, or erysipelas, a fever, or tuberculosis. George E. Thomas Student File

There is plenty of heartbreak in these documents. Some of the young people from Onondaga who went to Carlisle suffered from loneliness. Some clearly felt acute homesickness. Some learned of the death of parents or siblings through the mail and were not able to go home afterwards.  A few of them were treated poorly, the felt, in the houses where they were sent through Carlisle’s “putting out” system. Many of them ran away, and some of them tried to do so more than once.

But there is more to it than this.  We see young people from Onondaga who wanted to go to Carlisle, or whose parents wanted them to go to Carlisle, to learn a trade that they could not learn at home. Sometimes the kids had fun. Some of them wanted to be at Carlisle. A few of them did not want to go home.  They wrote fondly to Pratt’s successor Moses Friedman and thanked him for sending copies of the school’s newspaper.  When they could, they attended Carlisle sporting events. More than a few described how much they missed Carlisle, how they wished they could come back. They kept Friedman abreast of developments in their lives, and some of them helped recruit students. For some of the Onondagas who attended Carlisle, their fondness for the school was enormous.

These documents, so carefully digitized and well curated by the team at Dickinson, complicate and enliven the stories we now can tell about Carlisle.  And they will allow me to tell a more nuanced and detailed story about the Onondagas and their history.

One of the tricks of writing Native American history is to take sources written by white people who almost always thought that native peoples needed to die, disappear, or change, and use them along with those sources where native voices do appear to provide a rich description of Native American lives. With a judicious selection of secondary sources, an instructor could offer a wonderful seminar on historical research methods for beginning students, introducing them to the analytical and investigative tools a historian must develop. And a student could use this database to write a wonderful research paper.  The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center is digital humanities at its best.

We Are Not Canada, But We Could Learn A Thing or Two

In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about his country’s history of relations with its indigenous population.  He wanted to show the world that Canada could take responsibility for the “terrible mistakes” of its past.

Whether or not Canada has succeeded in doing, so, Trudeau spoke of the enduring legacies of colonialism.  “Early colonial relationships,” he said, for Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, “were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” but rather an experience that “was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”

And the damage has been long-lasting indeed.  Trudeau spoke of Canadian indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water, of large numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women.  He spoke of “Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away or take their own lives in the night.” The problems of which Trudeau spoke have been well-documented.

Trudeau has faced significant criticism at home from indigenous spokespeople who feel that his words have not been matched by action.  Many have criticized the Canadian movement towards reconciliation, which I have written about on this blog, as a feel-good movement for white people that does nothing about structural inequalities and injustices deeply rooted in Canadian society. These are significant critiques, and it is well-worthwhile for students of America’s native peoples to watch how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues its work. (You can access its reports here.)

But despite the criticism of Trudeau and the limitations of his approach, for an American president to even consider saying something close to what Prime Minister said before the UN is utterly inconceivable.  If you saw the excellent “Wind River,” you will recognize that the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is not exclusive to Canada.  Corporate profit-seeking in Indian Country has led to the devastation of water supplies on American reservations.  I have written much on this blog about DAPL (the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” is strong on sentiment but weaker in terms of substance) but that is hardly the only example.  More than a third of all Superfund sites are located in Indian Country, and others, like Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, are nearby. Police violence against native peoples, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and higher rates of deficiency on every measure of social well-being: the problems are enormous, the challenges daunting, and the resources available limited.  In both Canada and the United States, these are the legacies of an enduring colonialism.

Now, if I were to ask my students if they should expect President Trump to deliver a speech similar to that given by Prime Minister Trudeau, they would emphatically say “no.”  If I were to ask them why, their answers would be a bit more complex.  For to assert that Trump is a racist or white supremacist uninterested in hearing about complaints from or the conditions experienced by peoples of color, while true, only gets us so far. No American president, whatever his party, has spoken as frankly as Trudeau about his country’s mistakes and misdeeds. No, there is much more to it than the current American president’s long list of shortcomings, inadequacies, and character flaws.

The United States, regardless of its leader, has shown little interest in confronting its long history of colonialism.  The growth of the United States could not have occurred without the wholesale and systematic dispossession of native peoples.  Sure, many of the thousands of transactions where Indian land came into the hands of white people were “legal” in the sense that they were recorded in deeds or ratified in treaties, but these transactions have histories of their own.  They occurred because of the relentless pressure exerted by European farmers and their livestock on native lands, or because native peoples decided to sell lands that they knew from hard experience “settlers” would take from them anyways, or after epidemic diseases reduced an indigenous community’s population and this made their lands seem “vacant” or as “surplus” land. Some of these cessions were the price of peace after a military invasion of conquest and desolation.  Dispossession and violence often walked hand-in-hand.

The loss of land was immense. But it cannot be understood apart from the assault on native peoples’ cultures and ways of living.  Just as Canada had its residential schools, the United States had boarding schools. Still, there was so much more to the assault on Indian identity, and it was so much more thorough than a focus on these sadistic institutions might lead one to believe.  I tell the story of this cultural assault in Chapter 8 of Native America.

We, as a country, are not very good at talking about our misdeeds.  We insulate our children from these stories, for instance, for a variety of reasons: because the stories of the suffering that his country has caused native peoples are so massive that kids could not handle them, or because somehow hiding the country’s crimes from them is the best way to produce loyal and patriotic citizens. So we design curricula that talk about tiny parts of the Native American past, but not in a way that would cause children to question their country’s conduct.  It happened a long time ago. We are free and clear, we tell them.  We’ll blame it on Andrew Jackson, and call it a day.

Meanwhile we cast Indians as part of the past, a point I have raised on this blog many times, because it makes it easier to deny their just grievances today.  We will pat ourselves on the back for renaming a football team, or changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or persuading this or that religious denomination to renounce its approval for the Doctrine of Discovery, valuable though these acts may be.  But let’s be clear. These actions cost white people little, and the structural burdens imposed by colonialism and white supremacy survive them and remain intact.  We like to tinker around the edges of significant problems. Too many of us view manifestations of Indian identity as inauthentic, and the expressions of long-held grievances as belly-aching about things that happened long ago.  We do not believe, as a rule, that inter-generational trauma is a thing, or that the burdens of history weigh more heavily upon some people than upon others.

We are unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, and to many of us too ill-informed or too uninterested to learn and understand how Native America’s loss has been white America’s gain.

As I wrote the first draft of this post earlier this morning, the hourly NPR newsbreak came over the radio.  The first story was Donald Trump’s denunciation of those NFL players who, with respect and civility, took a knee to protest police brutality and the continuing slaughter of people of color by the nation’s law enforcement officers.  The second story involved the shooting of a deaf person of color by police officers in Oklahoma. The victim did not hear the officers’ demand that he set down the metal pipe he was holding.

This country, it’s something else sometimes.  As native peoples long have told us, white people in America are comfortable dictating to people of color how they should conduct themselves, the forms of grievance and redress-seeking that are legitimate, not to mention how to conduct themselves religiously, spiritually, emotionally, sexually, domestically, and aesthetically. When kneeling for the National Anthem is viewed as more disrespectful than flying the Confederate flag, and when this proposition can be debated, defended, and taken seriously by millions of almost exclusively white Americans who support the President, it is pretty evident that the sickness is rooted deep.

Justin Trudeau clearly has not come close to doing what his very sincere and committed critics want him to do, but he has done more than any American president, and he is light years ahead of our Brass Creon. Talking cannot do everything, and acknowledging past crimes is not a remedy by itself. But it’s a start. It is a vital precondition to things getting better. The act of acknowledging that I am at least partially responsible for your pain,  and that I have benefited from the historical suffering of your people: it can be a powerful thing.  I am fully aware that I am speaking favorably of Prime Minister Trudeau for doing, at the end of the day, what any informed and honest person would do.  Yet our current leadership, in politics and in public education, in the Democratic and in the Republican parties, are not even close to being able to clear so low a bar.

Apologies

This Friday is Sorry Day in Australia.  Though it has antecedents in aboriginal protest and commemoration, Sorry Day has taken place every May 26 since 1998.  It followed in its current form from a May 1997 report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission called Bringing them Home, which acknowledged that “Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia.”  That report was tabled twenty years ago this year.  Children in Australia’s boarding schools experienced physical and sexual abuse. They received little education of value. The Australian government admits that now.

In February of 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology. You can watch his powerful statement here.  He spoke of the brutality of Australia’s historic treatment of its indigenous neighbors.

Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.

We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.

We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.

In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation – from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the government and the parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.

Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.

Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.

I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.

My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.

And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.

Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.

Rudd’s statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, goes far beyond anything the United States has considered. There is in this country a substantial number of people who do not like to hear about the negative parts of US history.  I have heard this sentiment a lot over the years, and it takes different forms: discussion of the negative parts of American history is unpatriotic, or demoralizing, or depressing; telling these stories might come at the expense of telling more positive and uplifting stories that could bring young people to respect and revere American institutions; or, occasionally, telling the stories of those individuals and groups who have fallen by the wayside or who suffered as a result of American progress somehow diminishes the dominant narrative and those white people who populate and benefit from it.  These reactionary forces are powerful.  Those who bring these stories up can expect to be criticized severely, to have their integrity and their objectivity as scholars questioned, or to be dismissed with that empty-headed epithet that their work is “politically correct.”  I saw this first hand when I taught in Montana at the beginning of my career in the 1990s.  Speaking out on these issues, it turned out, nearly cost me my job.

Sorry Day in Australia is a limited response.   It does not go as far as the guys in the Australian rock band Midnight Oil wanted to go when they called upon their fans, in “Beds are Burning,” to return the land to its original owners.

Sorry Day does not pretend to fix every problem. But it does open up a discussion, a day when the government of Australia encourages its citizens to reflect upon what it has done, even in the relatively recent past, to Aboriginal Australians. That is more than the United States has done.

Canada, too, despite continuing problems with First Nations youth in provincial institutions, despite the large numbers of missing indigenous women, and the deep structural problems that gave rise to the Idle No More movement, has undertaken efforts to talk about its painful past.  I have mentioned on this blog the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed in Manitoba: it is a marvelous project that might equip Canadians to tell the story of Canada’s residential schools, the young people taken by law and by the authorities from their families to be educated, and the consequences and legacies of these wrong-headed and evil policies.

In the United States, in places, there are efforts to begin an accounting for the nation’s past misdeeds. Confederate memorials are coming down, a long-over due policy beautifully defended by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.  Some buildings, on some college campuses, named after racist and cruel figures from the American past, are being renamed, though not without controversy.  Some universities with ties to the slave trade, like Brown and Georgetown, have undertaken programs to atone for their sins.

But when it comes to native peoples, we are way behind Canada and Australia.  Small gestures, no doubt, are taking place: some members of some religious congregations have pushed their churches to renounce the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” a symbolic gesture that in the end would cost these churches little.  More real, perhaps, was the recent decision by the Society of Jesus to return land given to it by the United States on the Rosebud Reservation to the community. But a larger accounting has not occurred.

And without such an accounting, young people can only with great difficulty arrive at an understanding of the moral complexities of their nation’s past.  We need more than an apology, couched in legalese, that nobody knows about. I have mentioned the congressional apology on this blog. You can read it here, and see how truly deficient a document it is.  It is as if a Senate staffer went through an American history textbook, found the points where bad things happened to native peoples, and cobbled them together into a tepid and half-baked statement of regret.  We are sorry, but want it understood that nothing in this apology opens us up to suit.

The resources to write and teach this history are out there, and contrary to what you might have been taught, native voices are not hard to find in the historical record.  In the Agency records housed at the National Archives, for instance, hundreds and hundreds of reels of microfilm, each containing hundreds of pages of documents, allow committed researchers to reconstruct the government’s systematic programs to incarcerate native peoples on reservations, Christianize and civilize them, and take their land, all in the name of “Progress.”  Scattered around the country in state, local, and organizational archives are the historical documents that reveal the herculean efforts of native peoples to survive these policies. In these records are the stories of native peoples who lived their lives under this oppressive regime.  Their stories are worth talking about.  Obviously if I did not believe this very strongly I never would have written Native America.  We need to know these stories, for without comprehending the damage done we can hardly understand that for which we apologize.

On the last day of class in my Native American survey course, I talk about apologizing for the past.  I mention the periodic calls for an apology for slavery, or the efforts of the Reagan administration to accept responsibility on behalf of the American people for the policy of “internment” during the Second World War. I ask, “What about native peoples?” Does the United States owe native peoples an apology? I play them a video of Rudd’s apology and I might have them look at the American apology resolution.  Are these actions adequate? If not, what more might be done? Has so much historical damage been done that nothing can set things right?

You can imagine the student responses.  We (they readily identify themselves with the government still) will get sued, or when will it end, they ask.  They worry of an ill-defined slippery slope.  I had nothing to do with it, some might say, for my family came to the United States long after all of this history had occurred.

I try not to say too much. I try to let the conversation evolve.  If there is a lag, I mention some of the stories I have told them over the course of the semester.  I do not talk about the larger processes of dispossession or colonialism, but smaller stories, about individuals and local groups.  Don’t these stories cause you to feel sorrow? Regret?

We do not apologize well, I tell them.  I will mention whatever celebrity is in the news who said something that he or she regretted, followed by a “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”  No, I will point out.  It would have been better for this person to have said, “I’m sorry that my words hurt you.”  And if the government does not owe native peoples an apology, I ask the students, “Do you?”

It is time for us to pull these records together.  The National Archives does a lot.  Archivists across the country do great work, and digitization projects are underway all over the place. But these institutions need resources (Yes, I know about the Trump administration’s draconian budget proposal).  Let’s start compiling the material to tell this story comprehensively.  It is time for an accounting. Look, as I mentioned in an earlier post, at the ground beneath your feet. It does not diminish us in any way to admit that non-Indian citizens of the United States have prospered because their ancestors made native peoples suffer. It is the truth.  We need to confront it.

Remembering the Boarding and Residential Schools–Gord Downie’s “The Secret Path”

One of my very good former students told me about “The Secret Path,” a multimedia project produced by Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip in the fall of 2016.  An animated film, a musical album, a graphic novel, The Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack.  Twelve years old when he fled from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, Chanie wanted to return to his family at Ogoki Post, four hundred miles away.  He did not know how long a journey he had, and he never made it home. He died from exposure, exhaustion, and hunger along the tracks that he thought would lead him to his family in October of 1966.  Just a kid.

The Secret Path is a simple but searing portrait of the experience of children in Canada’s residential schools.  From the late nineteenth century into the 1980s (Cecilia Jeffrey closed in 1974), Downie wrote,

“All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are. “

Children at Cecilia Jeffrey were subjected to medical “experimentation and treatment of ear disease” in the 1950s,  government documents later revealed.  Children suffered, emotionally and physically.   Their families did, too, and a lot of people knew about it.  If you are interested in this history, or the parallel history of boarding schools in the United States, you should watch the film, listen to Downie’s music, and learn from the panel discussion treating the painful legacy of these institutions, filled with children taken by law from their parents aboard “Trains of Tears” which transported them hundreds of miles from their homes.  Between 20,000 and 50,000 children were sent to residential schools in Canada.  As in other parts of the history of native peoples, the numbers can stagger, become too abstract. What Downie does so well is force us to look at the entire broken and horrible process from the perspective of one child.

There is a large literature on the history of American Indian boarding schools. The bibliography will guide you to some of the books I like. The best treatment of the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania remains the unpublished dissertation written by Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918,” (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1998).  You will likely have to get it through your college library’s interlibrary loan.

Bell showed that we have not told the story of the American boarding schools as effectively as we might, that the important insights from this vast scholarship have not trickled down to high school and college American history textbooks.  For one thing, we have allowed Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of Carlisle, to shape too much of the narrative.  Pratt liked to boast that he would “kill the Indian and save the man.” He liked to produce before-and-after pictures, showing “savage” children from the western wilds and the same children, cleaned up and with their hair cut, in the military uniforms worn by Carlisle students.  Pratt wanted his supporters to believe that he was “civilizing”

Sylvester Long’s Report Card, before he became Buffalo Child Long Lance

wild Indians.

The reality was more complex, a point Bell makes convincingly. The most numerous children at Carlisle came from native communities in the east–Oneidas, for instance, or eastern Cherokee.  These children  spoke English and already were familiar with agricultural work on a white American model.  Many of them already were Christian.  They studied Latin and Trigonometry. Many of them wrote English beautifully.

But the institutions still were cruel.  Institutions in general where “the other” was corrected, improved, educated, reformed, rehabilitated, or detained, were routinely brutal.  Children died at these schools, far from home, some without knowing how much their parents and siblings missed them, without knowing how much they were loved.

I took this picture on a very rainy day nearly a decade ago in the graveyard that still stands on the site of the former Carlisle Indian School.  I was inspired to visit the site one day while I was in the area after reading Calvin Luther Martin’s The Way of the Human Being, which I mentioned in my previous post.  In that book’s closing pages, Martin and his wife visited the graveyard at Carlisle.  Having left his teaching job at Rutgers, and having spent some time teaching the real people in Alaska, Martin looked at the columns and rows of tombstones as if they were the seats in a classroom.  He presented to them, in a sense, his last lecture.

“I took my position at the front of the class and looked around, professor for the last time. Before me, attentive students in silent formation. The last class at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.  They died before becoming blacksmiths and carpenters, shoemakers and tinsmiths, tailors, printers, harnessmakers, plumbers, bricklayers, or laundresses, cooks, and seamstresses. But they were already real people, I thought, as I fought back my anger–people who understood the way of the human being in this place. I was a man, a historian, standing before a cemetery created by blundering good will.

I paused and reconsidered. I had to leave them with something more satisfying than my bitterness. . . I apologized to these kids. I apologized not as an angry historian but simply as a sorrowful human being. What else can one possibly be, standing in a graveyard? I called some by name as I did so. I told them we were traveling west, and I invited any lingering spirits to come along. All I heard were the cars, though sometimes, more powerfully, the wind.”

The United States, several years ago, apologized for its historic treatment of native peoples.  You probably missed it. The apology received little attention.  Largely the work of then-Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, the resolution included the formal “Whereas” statements that appear so often in Senate documents: Indians had been treated badly, they had been dispossessed, and, “Whereas the United States government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples, and endeavored to assimilate them by such policies as the redistribution of land under the General Allotment Act of 1887, and the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden,” the United States apologized “to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”  Nonetheless, “nothing in this joint resolution,” the Senators agreed, “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”

It was an empty, cynical, and shallow gesture.  We do not talk about the boarding schools, and other painful parts of our history, frankly enough.  We do not learn from this history.  The government boarding schools are gone, but there are still a few run by church and other organizations, like St. Labre in Montana.  Their approach is different than those used in an earlier period but, still, it is important to remember how recent this history is. The Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus reservation in western New York remained open into the 1950s.  It is not unusual to speak of and, in New York State, to meet boarding school “survivors.”

Canada is doing more than the United States to talk about its troubled past.  Still, problems remain. Just a couple of days ago, APTN ran a story with the headline “Ontario Government Has No Idea How Many First Nations Kids it Puts in Group Homes.”  Three teenage girls had died in these schools in less than six months, one in a fire, two by suicide.  If American officials and Canadian officials would have had their way in the not-so-distant past, nobody would be discussing the fate of Indian children, for the schools would have succeeded in assimilating native children into the Canadian or American mainstream.  According to Ry Moran, the director of the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, these schools “tried to end indigenous peoples.  They tried to end cultures.”  Speaking at a panel discussion available on The Secret Path website, Moran noted that “the railways were used in this country to establish Canada, but they also were used to transport kids,” many thousands of them, who were forcibly taken from their families.  It’s a story, Moran argues, that still too few Canadians know.  (The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is creating an archive, an amazing but troubling archive of arrogance, cultural imperialism, and ethnocentrism: You can check it out right here).

Americans, too, do not know these stories well enough.  Colonialism.  It is a force.  It produces comforting myths that blind Americans to the truth.  “It could not have been as bad as we might have heard.” I have heard that from audiences where I have spoken.  We do not like to confront the legacy of our past cruelties.  More powerful work like that produced by Downie may force more of us to do so.