Thursday, October 17, 2013

Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School

Tonight I watched an eye-opening film called "Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School."  It's about the historical reality of Indian Boarding Schools of the late 19th and 20th century in America.  These were schools where children of Native American parents were taken from their families and put into institutionalized prison-like settings, and taught the "superior" ways of white American culture and Christianity.  As one scholar in the film put it, these schools were the third wave of conquest of Native Americans.  The first was armed conflict, followed by displacement onto reservations, and then it was the Indian schools, which sought to "Kill the Indian, save the man."  These schools, guided by an essentially racist ideology, had a devastating psychological, social, and cultural impact on many native communities that can still be felt today.

The film, which contains interviews with Native Americans who were forced to attend these schools, is absolutely heartbreaking.  These kids were forbidden from speaking their native language, made to feel ashamed of their native culture, physically beaten, and sometimes sexually abused.  Many of the schools functioned as proto-vocational schools, where girls were taught how to do domestic work (cooking, cleaning, child-care), and boys were taught industrial trades.  The thinking was to prepare Indian students to occupy the lowest places in the American workforce: labor and domestic jobs.  

I feel like most non-native Americans know only a fraction of the Native American story.  In school, I remember feeling vaguely bad for what happened to Native Americans in the 1800s, feeling like Indian reservations were not very nice places, and that they sometimes had casinos.  I never learned about the long history of racism, abuse, and struggle Native Americans faced in the past, and continue to face.   Growing up, I also thought of Native Americans as people who lived "over there," somewhere far away in another part of the country.  It was only very recently that I learned that there is a local native American tribe--the Kizh, who still exist and are still struggling for recognition.  Their history is one of suffering and survival.  Even the Indian Boarding schools were not a faraway thing.  As nearby as Riverside, the Sherman Institute, now called the Sherman Indian High School, was and continues to be a major boarding school for Native American children in California.  

The most captivating person interviewed for the film was Andrew Windy Boy.  Here he tells what it was like going to Indian Boarding School:

I've got a couple writing projects in the works--one a history and the other a historical novel--and one of my main goals with both is to shine a light on hidden, or unknown histories like this, because they need to be known.  The old cliche "Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it" -- turns out to be more than a cliche.

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