The Reality of Residential Schooling

Few could have anticipated the cultural genocide that would take place for decades in the form of residential schooling. The path to such extreme cultural assimilation began in the late 1600s when John Eliot erected praying towns for Natives in an experimental effort to convert the indigenous peoples to a lifestyle of Christian beliefs (2). With the ideological belief of white supremacy, manifest destiny, and xenophobic perspective, President Ulysses Grant created a policy to set aside funds for the creation of educational facilities to be run by church and missionary society on Native reservations. The policy rationale became known and understood as ‘Kill the Indian and Save the Man.’ Richard Pratt, a key figure in the first erections of cultural assimilation schools argued that it would be better to have a cultural rather than a physical genocide. This philosophy laid foundation for the first off-reservation school, Carlisle. (2). An even more surprising rationale was publicly stated by Carl Schurz, the former Commissioner of Indian Affairs who felt that Natives had a “stern alternative: extermination or civilization” and eventually concluded that it would be more economic to choose a cultural rather than a physical genocide. It would cost “$1 million to kill an Indian in warfare, whereas it would cost only $1,200 to school an Indian.” These practices and policy initiatives quickly transferred over to Canadian governmental initiatives in which residential schools were erected and run by Churches throughout the nation in the late 1880s. The goal of residential assimilation was stated by the Law Commission of Canada as “to re-socialize people by instilling them with new roles, skills, or values. Such institutions break down the barriers that separate three spheres of life: work, play, and sleep. Once a child enters, willingly or not, almost every aspect of his or her life is determined and controlled by the institution.” (5). With this, decades of traumatically disturbing cultural atrocities would ensue.

The residential school system abducted children from their homes as young as three to age eighteen, removing them from their families, communities, and placing them under the care of Christian educators. In Canada, over 150,000 Aboriginal children spent time in residential schools, and experienced malnourishment, inadequate clothing, rampant disease, physical and sexual abuse, and punishment for displaying any traditional cultural practices, especially their native tongue (1). In one case, John Boone, a teacher at the Hopi school, had sexually abused over 142 boys (2). It was later discovered through investigation that schools were involved in pedophile rings and children were involuntarily sterilized as well as used for medical experimentation.

In the lens of the sacred, residential schools were extensions of a sacred narrative of missionary work to civilize and ‘elevate’ Aboriginal peoples (1.) Children were forced to worship as Christians and speak English. Torture was used as punishment for children who didn’t comply with the strict assimilative ways. In Canada, chronic underfunding increased the issue of malnourishment, inadequate clothing, disease, and forced manual labor. Residential schools operated as late as the 1960s in Canada and as late as the 1980s in the United States. While the abuse and practices of cultural assimilation were incredibly similar amongst the American and Canadian residential boarding schools, the government response to the appalling history of forced assimilation is vastly different.
The Canadian response began with the investigation and Report of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991, which concluded the situation as a “reign of disciplinary terror, punctuated by incidents of stark abuse—continued to be the ordinary tenor of many schools,” (1). Public outcry followed the public investigative report and prompted involvement of the Truth Commission of Genocide in Canada to issue a report as well. This report detailed the involvement of church and government in the murder of over 50,000 Aboriginal children through the residential school system caused by instances of beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation (2). This information, along with many other documented sources, prompted Canadian government to publicly and formally apologize while holding itself and the churches responsible for the abuse.  In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized and solidified the apology by compensating former students over $1.6 billion (1).

In comparison to Canada, the U.S has remained mute on the issue, rendering the American public uninformed and uninterested in the need to address the history and move forward. One reason for this lack of response is due to the deliberate destruction of any documentation of student enrollment and what took place at the residential schools in the U.S. This is an atrocity in itself because the boarding schools violate human rights legal standards, such as the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (2).

Furthermore, even with the end to residential schooling in the late 1980s, the abuse and trauma is endemic. The residential institutions imposed powerlessness, shame, low self-esteem, and issues with self-concept. Children were taught that their way of life and their identity was inferior and uncivilized. Additionally, separating the child from their parents and family results in a loss of family structure and quality of family life (4). The loss of cultural identity through assimilation and loss of language is a traumatic loss. The exposures to such trauma result in long-term emotional and psychological issues, which create disconnection and de-spiritualization within Native communities. Today, there are over 10,000 lawsuits in Canada citing cultural genocide (4). In the U.S, there hasn’t been a formal apology, nationwide acknowledgement, any sort of reparations, or support. It is a disgrace to humanity and the ultimate shame.


Video used in class presentation:

















Sources Cited:

(1) = Woods, Eric. A Cultural Approach to Canadian Tragedy: The Indian Residential Schools as a Sacred Enterprise. 2013. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society

(2) = Smith, Andrea. Boarding School Abuses, Human Rights, and Reparations. 2004. Social Justice, Vol. 31, No. 4.

(3) = [Used in Film] Kuokkanen, Rauna. “Survivance” in Sami and First Nations Boarding School Narratives. 2003. American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. ¾.

(4) = Barton, S., Thommasen, H., Tallio, B., Zhang W., C., Alex. Health and Quality of Life of Aboriginal Residential School Survivors. 2001. Social Indicators Research, Vol. 73, No. 2

(5) = Llewellyn, Jennifer. Dealing with the Legacy of Native Residential School Abuse in Canada: Litigation, ADR, and Restorative Justice. 2002. The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3


Video Links of Footage Used in Film Presentation:


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