The Tragedy of Native American Boarding Schools

This evening I listened in on a webinar with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), The Conversation Ignored for Too Long: Race and Racism in Education and Society with a remarkable panel including José Vilson, Liza Talusan, Cinnamon Kills First, and Tia Brown McNair.  I joined late and my internet cut out partway into the webinar, so I missed a fair amount, but the webinar ended with a Lakota blessing sung by Cinnamon Kills First (who is Northern Cheyenne).

I decided to watch the embedded documentary called In the White Man’s Image about the Native American boarding schools. It pains me as an educator how often education is used as a colonizing weapon. When I think of all we have lost as a country to our individualistic culture, it makes me so frustrated and sad. At one moment in the documentary, Sid Byrd tells the story of returning home from his boarding school and finding he has lost his language and cannot communicate with the people he loves. He also explains that

In the Lakota way, you are responsible not to yourself but to the Oyate, to the group. Whereas in the school, you say you have to be your own person, you have to acquire an education, and you had to do that by yourself. You could not be responsible to the group. You are responsible, so you take care of number one, and you get to the top at the expense of others.

This statement struck me. If I could pinpoint one thing that gets in our way the most in this society, it’s that we take care of number one at the expense of others. We feel no responsibility to the group. Everything from climate change to not wearing masks during a pandemic (and mocking those who do as “sheep”) to racism to misogyny to school shootings stems from the fact that White American culture celebrates, maybe even worships individualism. It is one reason why we dehumanize certain groups of people. It is one reason why we scapegoat people. It is also at the heart of assimilationism. When we ask people to assimilate, we’re saying that their culture and background are unworthy and they should adopt a colonizing culture.

My students in Social Justice watched a documentary from PBS that was part of the series The American Experience. It’s a 3-DVD set called We Shall Remain. We watched the episode titled “Wounded Knee” about the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the occupation of Wounded Knee in the 1970s. My students found it all very interesting, and many of them were particularly struck by the stories of Native people made to attend boarding schools. This is a clip from that episode (PBS doesn’t offer embed code).  Please click over and watch it. The whole series is well worth the investment to watch, and I highly recommend it.

Contemplate what we have all lost at the altar of individualism.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.