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Ed. Note: This article was turned down for publication at the Rapid City Journal, where the author's columns usually appear. Reasons cited included that the events happened decades ago. 

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For most people, memories of their first days of school are often blurred images kept alive by stories passed on over the years at family gatherings.

But for tens of thousands of Native Americans, memories of their early school days are nightmares they’ve relived throughout their lives.

This is, of course, courtesy of Christian missionaries and the federal government who both felt “something” needed to be done about “the Indian problem”. Yes, it does smack reminiscent of Germany’s Little Corporal.

In the case of the Christians, the goal was to “save the pagan savages” and bring them into the fold of Jesus. A noble calling, I suppose, but I’ve always questioned the mindset of beating religion into someone. Automatically brings that “what would Jesus do” question right into the equation.

From the federal government side, the goal was to completely eradicate all traces of Native American cultures - something already attempted for centuries, and quite successfully from a genocidal point of view.

The problem was there were still too many of those “redskins” around – and they had all these kids to keep the cultures going.

Enter the boarding school system, which Native American children would be forced to attend and where they would be “assimilated” into the dominant Western European culture.

The methods used to achieve that result were quite a bit removed from the primary definition of the word: to take in, incorporate as one’s own; absorb. Unless the parallel is: to absorb; as to soak up blood from a large, open wound.

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And that’s what Native American children received: wounds upon their bodies, their minds and their souls. Wounds that, for many, would never heal.

Upon their arrival at any of the dozens of boarding schools established across the country their hair was cut (a violation of most traditional Native American beliefs, especially among the Plains tribes), they were given uniforms to wear instead of their own clothing, their birth names were replaced with European-American names and they were forbidden to speak their native languages.

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These regulations, often enforced with severe discipline that included physical and emotional abuse – and more, resulted in what some in the medical field now refer to as “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. The condition comes as a result of suffering abuse for months, or years, and particularly impacts children whose personalities are still forming during this abuse.

It’s no surprise the boarding school system would follow such a path, having been created by U.S. Army Captain Richard Pratt – a man who supported Gen. Philip Sheridan’s comment that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Pratt added a slight caveat by noting “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

This topic came up recently while talking with a Lakota friend about “The Thick Dark Fog” – a documentary centered on the impacts the boarding school system had on one Lakota man: Walter Littlemoon, who – even as an elder, has trouble talking about that time in his life.

Having experienced the waning days of the strict Catholic school system, I’ve often told people that all those years with the nuns prepared me for Marine Corps boot camp.


For many Native Americans, the boarding school system mostly served to prepare them for reliving their abuses - over and over again.

Jim Kent

Photos: An Indian Boarding School Photo Gallery

Published: Monday, 1 October 2012