Friday, July 30, 2021

Boarding School 101

If I had one additional message to the creators of the Star Tribune editorial pages, it would be this: more op-eds of this quality, please. 

The quality I am referring to is today's article by Professor Brenda Childs called To honor our native ancestors, get their history right. Childs (Red Lake Ojibwe) is Northrop professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, and author of a book on early 20th century boarding schools. 

She brought her substantial expertise to create a Boarding School 101, clearing up many misconceptions:

  • The time when the U.S. government was involved in boarding schools was 1879–1930s. Before that, the schools were completely religious institutions.
  • Government boarding schools worked hand-in-hand with land dispossession, because the thought was that assimilated (decultured) native youth would not need a tribal homeland, and therefore native lands could be given away to white settlers, land speculators, and institutions (like the land grab universities).
  • Minnesota had one completely government-run boarding school (in Pipestone) and one that was run by the government for a decade and by the Catholic Church the rest of the time (in Morris, which is now the University of Minnesota Morris campus). Nationally, there were 25 government-run schools outside of reservations. I'm not sure if that 25 includes the Minnesota schools or not. 
  • Attendance was compulsory starting in the 1890s, and as most people know, required English language education.
  • The highest level of enrollment was near the end, in the 1930s, when the Great Depression led even more native families to look for poverty relief through the schools. That's a sad fact.
  • Near the end of FDR's time as president, all of the schools were closed and the children were integrated into public schools. Childs doesn't say much about that process.
  • Children died at the schools from tuberculosis, which was widespread in the U.S. in those decades, as well as the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. She doesn't mention malnutrition or other causes.

One of the key things I learned from Childs is how U.S. boarding schools differed from Canadian ones:

First, the U.S. did not farm out Indian education to the Catholic and Anglican churches. In Canada, the churches ran residential schools. As we have learned from Canada, church-run schools located at a distance from the protection of the Indian community left students vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence and death.

Second, once the impoverishment and dispossession of American Indians was complete, it was no longer necessary in the U.S. to keep Indians in segregated schools. Progressive educators found little resistance to public school integration. By the 1930s, they even disparaged the boarding schools as "medieval institutions." Residential schools continued for another 50 years in Canada.

Thanks to Professor Childs for synthesizing so much of this history into a short, digestible piece that's 10 times better than most of what runs on the Strib's op-ed page.

1 comment:

akvera said...

Late to the post, I took time to verify my vague assumptions based on an Alaskan childhood. For a time, the territorial boarding schools in Alaska were run more like Canada's.
"These schools were operated by Christian missionaries of various denominations until around the turn of the 20th century when many of these schools were taken over by the federal government." src:
In 1885, Presbyterian 'missionary' Sheldon Jackson had been appointed General Agent of Education in the Alaska Territory.
"From his first year as general agent, Jackson used contracts as incentive and security for mission societies willing to start schools, but unable to support them through private contributions alone. In 1885-86, in addition to the ten government schools, three of which were "white" town schools, Jackson also executed two contracts with Presbyterian schools in southeast Alaska.21 In 1888-89 there were six, involving five religious denominations; in 1890-94 the number of contracts had been reduced to seven, involving five denominations. The largest number of contracts in any one year was fifteen, in 1891-92, involving eight denominations. In the same year Jackson maintained fifteen government schools. There were as well fifteen schools operated by various mission groups without benefit of any federal support, including several Russian Orthodox schools antedating the 1867 purchase of Alaska.22" src: