December 15, 2005

Boarding schools in America or residential schools in Canada: What was the difference?


What happened to the Indian children sent to the “residential schools” in Canada was not very different than what happened to the indigenous children in the United States.

As the result of a lawsuit brought by the survivors of the residential schools, nearly 86,000 indigenous Canadians are eligible to collect money from the $2 billion in Canadian funds allocated for payment.

The disbursement will be in lump-sum payments calculated on a “10 plus 3” basis. This means that $10,000 will be awarded to all of those who attended residential schools with an added $3,000 for each year they attended thereafter and former students older than 65 will be immediately eligible for a payment of $8,000.

How can one be compensated for the cultural, spiritual, physical, sexual and emotional abuse that robbed them of their heritage, language and, oftentimes, their ambition to succeed?

Assembly of First Nations national Chief Phil Fontaine, a victim of the schools, said at a press conference held at Ottawa on November 3 that before Canada’s elected politicians and indigenous leaders can address the health, education and social issues “the legacy from this shameful past had to be resolved.”

In her final report Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLaughlin wrote, “The incontrovertible reality is that the Church played a significant role in the running of the school. It hired, fired and supervised the employees. It did so for the Government of Canada, but also for its own end of promoting Christian
education to Aboriginal children. I conclude that the Church should be jointly vicariously liable with Canada for the assaults, contrary to the conclusions of the Court of Appeal.”

For more than 100 years the federal government of the United States, often in collusion with different church organizations, built schools, staffed them and conducted an educational process equal to that of Canada. Indian children were taken from their homes and institutionalized in government boarding
schools and church mission boarding schools. This was all done for the benefit of the children or so it was believed at the time.

The schools stripped the children of their identity in a variety of ways. They were forbidden to speak their native language, indoctrinated into Christianity, brow beaten into believing that they were the descendents of heathens and could only be saved by becoming a firm believer in Christianity. 

The forced separation from their parents and grandparents almost assured them of losing their cultural and hereditary ties to their ancestors. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the children were beaten with paddles and leather straps for petty violations of the school rules such as speaking a word in their own
language. And no matter what the Church and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and clergymen of today say, the abuse was often of a sexual nature. 

For more than 100 years the United States government and the Catholic, Mormon, Methodist and other church groups have been in denial. They simply refuse to admit that any such abuses ever occurred and to refute any charges otherwise, they wheel out as spokespersons some of the present generation of Indians who have been totally brainwashed and converted to their beliefs. These are the children who did not see, speak or hear no evil.

I would welcome the hierarchy of any BIA boarding school or Indian mission boarding school to produce a list of former students and track them through the years they have spent on this earth since leaving the boarding schools and Indian missions. I think their failure averages would be quite astounding.

Just from the school I attended in the 1940s and 1950s, the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a list of students who went on to lives of alcoholism, drug abuse and crime is quite extensive. I can name several of my former classmates who ended up in prison or died by their own hand. I can name several who ended up as wife abusers and just as bad, abusers of their own children.

Time and time again I have written over the past 35 years that children cannot be abused mentally, physically, sexually and emotionally without serious consequences. It is a proven fact that the abused often become the abusers. It is also a proven fact that the abused often turn to lives in conflict with
the law.

When I first wrote about this 35 years ago I was looked upon as some kind of nut and the Catholic Church, one of the worst abusers of Indian children, verbally attacked me. I have had to defend myself time and again against the Church. They have even gone so far as to say that I only attended the mission school for six months or not at all. I even had to get affidavits from former classmates to prove I was ever a student there. 

The truth is that I was a student at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission for 10 and one half years. I wrote down many of the things I saw and experienced and put them into a book of poetry, The Aboriginal Sin that was published by the Indian Historian Press, Inc., in 1978. I have since taken many of the stories
I have written about from those terrible days at the mission school and put them into a new book, The Children Left Behind, that will be published by Clear Light Book Publishing of Santa Fe, NM in February of 2006.

Perhaps the United States government and the many Church organizations responsible for the boarding schools, those schools called residential schools in Canada, will never admit the wrongs they committed upon an innocent race of children, but there were many acts committed that were criminal in nature. 

It was the innocent Indian children that eventually paid the price for the over zealousness of the government and the church. Many of us are still paying the price of the abuse. What happened to the Indian children of Canada happened in the lower 48 with as much frequency and vehement. 

No amount of monetary compensation will ever make up for the suffering of the innocent children of Canada or America. But, at least the victims of the residential schools in Canada will get a little relief. It is a hard lesson that the Indian people must never forget and for goodness sake, should never allow the church or the government to sweep it under the rug. It is a black mark in the history of this country.


Tim Giago is the president of the Native American Journalists Foundation,
Inc., and the publisher of Indian Education Today Magazine. He can be reached
at or by writing him at 2050 W. Main St., Suite 5, Rapid City, SD
 © 2005, Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.


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