Tag Archives: Carlisle

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.

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.

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.