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The dark chapter of the schooling of the Native Americans A haircut, the substitution of traditional costumes with a uniform, a ban on speaking the native language or professing their creed were among the rules for the Native American children who, at the end of the 19th century, first set foot in Boarding Schools.
Practices aimed at eradicating or what historian D.W. Adams defined “education for extinction” by Lorena Carbonara
End of 19th century. A native student before and after his entry into Carlisle Boarding School, in Virginia
A chapter of American history that hardly ever gets told is that of the native populations of North America; the so-called “Indians” or “redskins”. In reality, there were many writings and images relating to them throughout the 19th and 20th century but very rarely was anything dealt with from the point of view of those who had literally lost “the earth from beneath their feet”. In the years of European colonization of American territory, in fact, the threat to the physical and cultural survival of the native populations arrived in the shape of unknown illnesses, extermination during the numerous wars, political treaties that agreed the submission of the Indian chiefs and, lastly, in the form of schooling.
The schooling of the Native American children represents, to this day, a blank page in the book of the history of such a vast and variegated country as the United States, which by the 18th century boasted its independence from the mother country, England. But on this there is much to say; starting from the institution of the Boarding Schools at the end of the 19th century, a period in which the American government had not yet found its definitive solution for the “Indian question”. By “definitive”, was meant a solution that would put an end to all the claims of the native populations that were being pushed further and further west and being rounded up in ghettoes that were called Indian reservations.
ublicized with the slogan “Kill the Indian and save the man”, schools for Native American children were set up by the American government in which they would be able to learn the civilized manners of the white man, which included literacy in the English language, and the Christian religion. Such a civilization, that the historian D.W. Adams defined in 1995 “education for extinction”, came by means of a series of practices aimed at uprooting all that was of native, (or “Indian”) from inside and outside the children (“man”).
A haircut, the substitution of traditional costumes with a uniform, the change of name into a Christian name, a ban on speaking the native language or professing their creed; these were some of the things on the list of rules for the children who first set foot in these military-style schools, where they were rigorously photographed before and after the operation of “civilization”. So the groups of young natives in their diverse traditional costumes, with the hair styles reflecting their various tribes, with their own customs and traditions, their own language and their own god, were transformed into soldiers in uniform who marched unknowingly into extinction.
Trained to become good labourers (the boys) and good maids (the girls) they were ready to enter the white socio-economic world wearing a precise label sewn on them by the European system, through whose eyes they seemed slow on the uptake and hard to civilize. The truth was, deprived of their roots and channeled into an alien society, these young people lost every contact with the world of their ancestors that was so dear to their culture of origin; moreover, the psychological abuse and often also physical abuse that they underwent in these structures (as brilliantly shown in the film by Georgina Lightning Older Than America, 2008) slowly destroyed any form of self-reliance, a quality on which, paradoxically, American society had been founded.
It would seem true therefore, that a good Indian is a dead Indian, as the controversial saying that still echoes around the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi goes, if you consider the inner death of these children within these schools, where they developed a real post-traumatic syndrome called “residential school syndrome” (W. Churchill, 2004). Generations of women and men are still struggling these days against alcoholism, violence, a high suicide rate and the total loss of any feeling of belonging to either sort of society.
So, it wasn’t only the wars that brought about the extermination of the peoples and the extinction of a culture; these things can take place silently, under the radar, while on the surface the world moves towards homologation. “Our spirits don’t speak English” accuses the title of a recent documentary that tells the story of the experience of these children in the Boarding Schools and which, very concisely, expresses the need to let everyone speak the language of their own soul.