Wounded Leaders, Wounded Nations

By Dr. John Bacher & Danny Beaton, Mohawk Nation

Canadian natives suffer from a crisis of leadership under the graduates of the residential school system.

Find out how these sinister educational institutions robbed natives of their traditions and ties to Earth to replace them with Euro-American values of greed and ownership.

Residential schools for natives, which were imported from the United States prison system, were introduced to the Americas by colonists. These schools were used as a device to assimilate natives into the ideology of Western thinking. Residential schools were part of an unrelenting war to steal Indigenous lands in order for organized imperialist to profit from and control America after the guns were silenced on the American parries.

The Canadian Residential School system was a terrible nightmare created by a federal government attempting to imitate the worst aspects of the American dream – hoping that natives would lose respect for the earth and become obsessed with getting rich through real estate speculation like ordinary American citizens.

Residential schools were part of an unrelenting war on native culture after the gunfire of the American prairies was stilled. Confrontation between two ways of life shifted from the battle field to the class room. Past battles over land were coupled with newer clashes over ideals, dreams and values.

After the plains wars ended, native culture was painfully forced to adjust to life on reservations, by having cattle grazing replace the hunting of wild animals as a critical source of food. For the American government however, such a compromise was not enough. It sought to break up both the reservations and native culture.

To conform to the American dream, Native American governments would be dissolved and the tribal lands were broken up into lots, which could be sold in the real estate market. U.S. policy hoped that individual Native Americans would break their bonds with the earth, looking at the land as a source of cash, rather than of spiritual nourishment.

The sinister school system developed at a time when moderate American political opinion supported cultural genocide. They defeated the more fanatical extremists that desired the slaughter and massacre of Native Americans. Such extremists saw final solution in crude physical genocide reminiscent of a number of killings in the 19th century, most infamously, Sand Creek.

Narrow escape from native massacre
The Lakota, (Sioux) spiritual leader Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated the U.S. Calvary in 1876, averting a planned massacre of natives who were resisting seizure of the sacred Black Hills, guaranteed through a treaty with the U.S. government. A dramatic victory was won to defend traditional native lands and the spiritual way of life based upon it. This was guarded through deep emotional bonds to the earth, reinforced by sacred ceremonies intended to promote reverence for life.

The Lakota triumph was won at a significant time. It took place on the eve of the American Centennial celebrations. These celebrated the American Revolution’s victory over the Crown’s efforts to defend native territories against rich and greedy colonial land speculators such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.

The news of the Lakota last stand in defense of Mother Earth was received in the heavily populated eastern United States on the fourth of July. This put a great damper on the American centennial festivities, challenging widespread notions of cultural superiority. It contributed greatly to a fanatical revenge war to wipe out native traditional ways.

At the time of the American centennial very few Euro-Americans, at least those who were significant then as a political force, had any sympathy for Native American efforts to defend their traditional culture and territories. In the 1870s, public opinion of the small number of politically active American citizens who actually concerned themselves with native issues was divided into two basic camps.

Both disliked how Native Americans stood in the way of Euro-American efforts to exploit the earth through environmentally harmful projects such as railways, mines and agriculture on arid lands prone to erosion. The answer of one camp was to kill all Indians. The other response was to kill the cultural ways that motivated Native Americans to defend the earth from the assaults of destructive corporate agendas.

The critical architect of the residential school system was a combat veteran of the wars of the Great Plains, U.S. Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Considered by the American standards of the period as racially tolerant, Pratt commanded blacks and natives against their own people to seize control over the western prairies.

Pratt fought during eight years of fighting following the end of the Civil War. He played an important role in the American military victories in plains wars. This was aided greatly by the deliberate slaughter of game animals native people needed for food and clothing. The combined policies of assaults by hunters and soldiers eventually lead to the destruction of the Great Plains horse-buffalo culture.

From his Great Plains battle experience, Pratt developed a slogan that he would repeat many times: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

He wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “If millions of black savages can become so transformed and assimilated…there is but one plain duty resting on us with regard to the Indians – that is to rescue them of their savagery.”

Prisons provide concept
Captain Pratt developed the concept of the residential school while serving as a prison warden of natives captured in the post-Civil War battles he fought for control of the plains. In 1875, he became the jailer of a group of Caddo, Southern Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa prisoners at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. They were issued military uniforms, and given instruction in drill. A handful who curried his favour became guards keeping watch over their fellow native prisoners.

Conditions for such native prisoners of war, transported thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes on the plains, were quite traumatic. Food was scarce, disease rampant. There was terrible overcrowding. Prisoners could be jailed for 30 years in Florida cells thousands of miles from their homes. Many endured great suffering behind bars until a general amnesty in 1919, when natives in the United States were finally given voting rights.

Pratt offered his prisoners hope for early release if they agreed to abandon their native ways. In 1878 he had a select group of 17 prisoners released from the confines of Fort Marion. They were sent to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, then a boarding school for black children.

Seeing a way of escape, the former inmates conformed to Pratt’s expectations and excelled in school. From this coercive experience of forced assimilation, Pratt developed his concept of what became known as the Industrial Indian Residential Boarding School. Here he believed that distinctive native cultural traits could be eradicated. Some of his former prisoners recruited natives to attend these schools.

While he was a prison warden in St. Augustine, Pratt met a number of wealthy vacationers who supported his plans for the residential school; where natives could be assimilated into American ways. Their lobbying persuaded the government to support his schemes for indoctrination, brainwashing and assimilation.

Before the 1870s, residential schools were located on or in close proximity to reservations, where parents could easily visit. They would now be deliberately located far away.

Schemes to break native ties
To obtain students for the Carlisle residential school, Pratt went to the Lakota communities which had three years earlier defeated Custer’s calvary. He persuaded the chiefs to send the children to Carlisle on the deceptive grounds that gaining education would help them defend their reservation communities from white land speculators.

While Pratt spoke with the Lakota chiefs to get students for his school, one of his key supporters was Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes. He was the author of legislation called the Dawes Act.

The infamous Dawes Act would remove 40 percent of the remaining land held by Native Americans on reservations. Much of this former reservation land, guaranteed by sacred treaties, ended up in the hands of white speculators, logging and mining interests, and ranchers.

The Dawes Act required that reservations be divided up into individual lots to teach natives respect for American notions of private property.

Ecologists have pointed out the folly behind the Dawes scheme. Most of the land that was broken up by the Dawes Act was not suitable for intensive farming by natives on individual plots of land. It was better suited to communal grazing for animals (such as bison) than growing crops (such as wheat) on plots that would fail during common drought periods.

Both Dawes and Pratt sought to break up what they termed the “tribal mass,” and turn Indians into assimilated Americans. They had no understanding of how these native nations had evolved over thousands of years, through cultures based on respect for the earth.

Hungry, homesick and punished
The natives Pratt lured to his school received a traumatic experience in indoctrination in American ways, which is best understood as brainwashing.

When the students arrived at Carlisle they were forced to sleep hungry on the floor on their blankets. Pratt, his wife and the Carlisle teaching staff, immediately began their immersion until “thoroughly soaked” efforts at assimilation by removing all outward signs of Indian appearances. Confused and homesick, the Lakota children wept as their long hair was cut and fell to the ground. A collective wail rose up, creating a wrenching sounding echo around the campus.

The Carlisle school was organized in a fashion quite similar to his management of the Fort Marion prison. Boys were dressed in military uniforms and given ranks. As in his Indian prison, native officers were put in charge, rewarding those who sought Pratt’s favor. Students practiced marching and drilling. They were given military style ranks. Marching was done to classes and to the dining hall for meals. Inspections went into considerable detail. They even tried to ensure that the regulation red flannel underwear, which many natives found uncomfortable, was actually worn.

Cells were built to lock up students as punishment for various offenses; such as attempts to run away, a common offense.

The destruction of native languages was one of Pratt’s key objectives. Children began English lessons as soon as they arrived at Carlisle. Students were punished, sometimes severely, if caught speaking their native languages, even in private. The few parents who were able to travel long distances to the school could only speak to their children in their native tongues if permission was obtained from Pratt.

Eventually Carlisle became famous for its sports teams, especially in the area of football. This produced the professional superstar, Jim Thorpe. Native games such as lacrosse were never taught at any residential school in North America. Children who played Indian games were severely punished.

Climate change, separation anxiety and lack of immunity contributed to the death of many Carlisle students. More than 175 tombstones line the campus grounds today. Prayer cloths, strings of shell and beads and small bundles of sage and sweet grass embrace tree trunks in the cemetery. Those buried on the grounds represent only a small number of the natives who perished here. Most were sent home for burial, but some had no relatives who could make the arrangements. Several hundred died on route to their families after becoming critically ill.

Although the first students at Carlisle attended voluntarily, a few years after the school was founded, compulsory methods were used. Such harsh means were applied to the children of the followers of Geronimo, many of whom attempted to hide their children. Many of these students died and were buried at Carlisle.

Canada follows Carlisle model
Carlisle became the model for residential schools in both Canada and the United States. Most had far more serious problems of sexual abuse, torture and poor food.

While the Mohawk Institute, founded in 1829, was the first Indian residential school in Canada, it was a tiny scale operation, dependent on private British contributions, until the federal government decided to pour more money into the system.

Carlisle was founded at a critical time in Canada, 1879. This was the same time that buffalo shrank in such numbers on the plains from the deliberate extermination policies south of the border, that the shrunken herds could not support native communities on the prairies. To have education provide a means by which natives would not have to be supported by government rations was the reason that in 1879, the Conservative Party government of Sir John A MacDonald, had an inquiry into native education in Canada.

MacDonald’s government embraced the agenda and methods of the new Carlisle academy following a report by a backbencher, Nicholas Flood Davin of Regina, to create Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds. Davin was especially impressed by the American policy of what he termed “aggressive civilization.” MacDonald agreed with the approach of having the native child “dissociated from the prejudicial influence by which he is surrounded on the reserve of his band.”

Fortunately for natives it took many decades before the Canadian government could impose the residential school model on the majority of natives. Anticipating native anger, schools were not formally made compulsory until 1895. Even after this step, in many parts of the country, the regulations were not enforced until 1933, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were officially empowered to act as truant officers. The system did not begin to become dismantled until natives were finally given federal voting rights in 1962.

In the United States where natives were granted the right to vote in 1919, the residential school system was wound done at a much faster rate, with Carlisle the model for the whole system, itself being closed down in 1918.

Even before natives were granted the right to vote in the United States, the fanatical assumptions that gave birth to the residential school system were under public attack. This resulted in the resignation of Pratt in 1903 from the control of the school he founded.

New president brings change
The American government changed its policy of eradicating native culture after Theodore Roosevelt became president. Roosevelt was a close friend of the American photographer Edward Curtis, who became one of the most eloquent exponents of the virtues of traditional native culture.

More sympathy to Native American culture came about from the growth, even at the turn of the century, of the environmental movement. Many of the founders of the American environmental movement, such as the Canadian born Ernest Thompson Seton, had a profound reverence for the earth respecting cultures of Native Americans.

A Toronto born writer and artist, Seton learned to appreciate the earth from the examples of Native American leaders who defended their way of life. He was a close friend of the Lakota author Charles Eastman, who became an influential civil servant in the American Bureau of Indian Affairs. A medical doctor who treated native victims of the Wounded Knee massacre, Eastman effectively challenged America’s past manias for assimilation.

Influential opinion makers were horrified at the reality of the environmental destruction, especially the extermination of species that took place after Euro-Americans seized control of lands from natives. Through the efforts of President Roosevelt, the Dawes Act, championed by Carlisle graduates such as Standing Bear, was eventually repealed, and much of the land returned to the control of native communities. Natives and environmentalists worked to save the buffalo from extinction, with a herd being reintroduced to the Crow and Lakota reservations as part of the New Deal policies of Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, in Canada a strong environmental movement did not develop until after the vote was extended to natives in 1962. This was partly caused by the fact that much of Canada, unlike the United States, remained largely wild forested environments, not subjected to industrial exploitation. At the time natives received the vote, this was still true for most of Canada’s vast and more thinly populated land mass.

Humiliation techniques imitated
Some of the abuse of natives in residential schools was caused by the harsh government mandates given the churches to wipe out native culture, especially languages. More respectful church groups, notably the Jesuits, did teach in native languages for a period, but this was outlawed by the Canadian government.

Strange and cruel punishments were given to natives for speaking in their own language. Bruises from staff punishment were signs that students were still brave enough to speak their own language. Whipping and strapping were a common penalty for speaking in native tongues. A typical punishment would be to write down five hundred times that the student wouldn’t “talk Indian” any more.

The first native residential school in Canada, the Mohawk Institute, helped to pioneer various humiliation techniques, which were used by imitators across the country. This was partly supported by the slave labour farming efforts of its students. The Principal would sell off its marketable produce, such as butter and eggs, for his personal profit. To avoid the poor fare served students, the school’s higher staff and their families would eat in separate private facilities.

The only native government which attempted to challenge the residential school system before the franchise was extended to native peoples in 1962 was the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. At the behest of two parents, the Confederacy in the autumn of 1913 embarked on a campaign against mismanagement at the Mohawk Institute. This was done on the basis of hair-shearing, whipping, inadequate food, and the denial of parental visits. The Confederacy, through hauling the principal into court, did win awards against the school for whipping and the imposition of a three day water diet.

The Canadian government disapproved of the actions taken by the traditional Iroquois Confederacy. It refused to authorize the release of funds the Confederacy had authorized for legal expenses. Ten years after the Confederacy took the Mohawk Institute to court the Canadian government occupied the council house with an RCMP force, and seized its sacred wampum. This situation, which resulted in the imposition of an elected band council contrary to the traditional Great Law of Peace, still has not been corrected by the Canadian government, although a federal court ruled in 1973 that the 1923 actions were illegal.

Wounded leaders, wounded nations
Canadian natives suffer from a crisis of leadership under the graduates of the Residential school system, similar to that endured by natives south of the border eighty years ago. Like Carlisle, which nurtured Standing Bear’s advocacy of land ownership, the Canadian residential schools produced native leaders who became advocates of disrespecting traditional bonds to the earth.

While native leaders do not advocate policies similar to the Dawes Act, so fervently advocated by the Carlisle alumni, what they do support, in a similar disregard for native bonds to the earth, is revenue sharing. This has been done through a denial of native traditions of trusteeship of the earth, in favour of European models of ownership taught in residential schools.

The wisdom of elders that natives do not “own” the land, but are its guardians for creation, is now disputed by graduates of the residential school system, such as former Assembly of First Nations Chief, Matthew Coon Come, and his colleagues, Ted Moses and Bill Namagoose. While deploring the abuse that took place in these institutions, they have only applause for the content of the curriculum, which helped shape their defense of plans for massive flooding of the waters of their Cree homeland. This formulated their innovative doctrines that caring for the land is a low status “janitor” occupation, unworthy of respect.

It is to be hoped that as in America, the leadership role played by the alumni of residential schools will be a passing phase. Coon Come was recently rejected as Assembly of First Nations Chief – as was Standing Bear by the voters at Pine Ridge who retained their love for the earth.