UNITED NATIONS (IPS/GIN) - The policy was to “kill the Indian and keep the man.”
The aim of a boarding school system established by U.S. officials in the 19th century was to assimilate Native American children into the dominant White society, speakers told a panel discussion at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on May 12.
That meant forbidding their languages, clothing, hair styles—their culture, in fact—using as much violence as was needed, they said.
And now they are demanding restitution on their own terms.
“Under international human rights law, the U.S. is still accountable for any continuing effects,” which include the loss of indigenous languages and the violence that today permeates many Indian communities, said Andrea Smith from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
She and other women have started the Boarding School Healing Project (BSHP), which has four main goals: heal the schools’ victims; educate people about the attempted genocide of the Native American; document how that process worked, and build a movement that will demand compensation from the U.S. government.
The residential school system began with president Ulysses Grant’s 1869 “Peace Policy” and continued well into the 20th century, taking 100,000 Native American children from their homes to live and study in Christian boarding schools.
Students, as young as two years of age, were placed in the schools until the age of 18, many returning home speaking a different language (English) than when they left. Many were also physically and sexually abused.
“Some of my peers committed suicide, some drank themselves to death, some died violent deaths. They don’t know how many were abused, but one thing we know: the oppressed became the oppressors when they returned home,” said one former student quoted in a short film about a similar school system established in Canada on the U.S. model.
Among its impacts, the boarding school system in both countries implanted forms of violence in native communities that still exact a high cost today, said speakers at the UN.
“Sometimes I have to say I’m sorry to my children, because I have behaved in the way the missionaries, the education of the residential schools, made us,” said Eulynda Benalli of the Crownpoint Institute of Technology on the Navajo Nation in the U.S. state of New Mexico.
Among their impacts, the boarding schools replaced traditional practices performed by women with patriarchal systems, which led to the “devaluing of native women in our communities,” said Ms. Smith.
The chairman of the Permanent Forum told the opening session of the annual meeting that Indigenous men worldwide must do more to stem domestic violence and ensure gender equality in their communities.
“Indigenous cultures rely on gender complementarity, a symbiosis that values both women’s and men’s business, that affirms both with respect and balance,” added Ole Henrik Magga.
The Permanent Forum, the only full-time UN body devoted to indigenous issues, meets until May 21, and focuses this year on Indigenous women.
During the two-week session, its 16 members will hear dozens of submissions on human rights, environment, education, culture, economic and social development and health, from some 1,500 delegates.
An advisory body only, the forum’s recommendations will go to the UN Economic and Social Council, which will decide which will be forwarded to September’s General Assembly of all UN member states.
While the Boarding School Healing Project is just starting, a group of indigenous people on Canada’s west coast have nearly finished an eight-year process to help heal their communities.
The native people of Haida Gwaii, officially known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, have repatriated the remains of more than 400 of their ancestors who were stolen from their graves for study in the 19th and 20th centuries and then stored in museums throughout North America and beyond.
The Haida, who number about 4,000 people on their islands off the coast of British Columbia, taught students to make blankets and “bentwood” boxes from the cedar trees of their temperate rainforests for each set of remains, which were then buried in a special ceremony, the most recent on May 8.
After contact with White settlers, many Haida were sent to residential schools, while their land, sometimes called the “Canadian Galapagos” for its unique flora and fauna, was logged and mined without their permission.
“Germ warfare” nearly wiped out a population that may have reached 30,000 at one point in the past, says Andy Wilson of the Haida Repatriation Committee. The 1915 census counted just 588 Haida.
Repatriation “was a way to say, ‘were not taking this any more and anything that you took from us, we’re here to take back.’” Someone said at the May 8 burial ceremony, talking about the repatriation committee, that all the respect and honor they showed the ancestors helped start the healing.
Ms. Smith said the BSHP would discuss how to take the United States to account for the continuing damage to Indigenous communities caused by the boarding schools. The options include approaching the school system as a violation of international human rights or as a legal wrong, to be put right in a U.S. court.
Unlike in Canada, though, the group will not recommend that individuals receive compensation from the government. “We want to approach this from a sovereignty framework, because what has happened has happened to us as a whole people,” Ms. Smith said.
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