How indigenous residential schools erased identities and subjected children to horrific abuse across countries and centuries


Mary-Rose Abraham: Hey, Gayathri.

Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Hi, Mary-Rose.

MRA: So I thought we’d start off with a story. And this is about a woman named Sally General. And when she was only four years old, Sally was sent off to a boarding school. And they never called the school by its proper name. She and her classmates called it Mush Hole because the food was so bad. 

Sally belongs to a tribal nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. I hope I said that right. Their territory spans a large area of New York State and crosses the border into Canada. So some of the tribal children were sent to schools in New York and others went to Canadian schools. Sally went to the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Canada. And here’s one incident that she remembers. 

Sally General: We were at the Mush Hole one week and our heads were full of bugs. We had all our hair cut off. We were made baldies. We were really bald. And that wasn’t a very good feeling to have.

MRA: So like Sally said, her hair was shaved off and that was just the beginning of years of abuse at the school.

Sally General: They’d throw us in this dark room and tell us the rats were going to get us. I didn’t know then why I was being thrown in there and I used to wonder, ‘What did I do?’ and I would cry. We cried and cried for hours not knowing why we were in there. They’d take us out. And when I did get to learn a little bit of English, I knew they were throwing us in there because we wouldn’t speak English.

GV: Oh, my God.

MRA: It’s awful. 

GV: Yeah, it’s really awful. 

MRA: That’s just one example of what she endured there. Her interviews are from a 2009 documentary called Unseen Tears and that’s by filmmaker Ron Douglas. So Sally and hundreds of thousands of indigenous children in America and Canada were sent to boarding schools just like Mush Hole. And they were forbidden to speak their language or wear their traditional clothing, practice their religion. And a lot of times they didn’t see their families for years. So it was a legacy of hardship and abuse that was literally meant to wipe out their cultures.

GV: And it’s just heartbreaking. I think we should define who indigenous people are, just to set the boundaries for this discussion. So indigenous people are also known as First Nations, First People, aboriginal people, native people, and they’re essentially culturally distinct ethnic groups that are native to a place that has been settled or colonized by other peoples. So the United Nations says that indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment.

 So there are indigenous people around the world, from the US and Canada, like you mentioned, but also, yeah, pretty much everywhere. The Arctic Sami land, south and central America, the Caribbean, also India. Of course we have the Adivasis or tribals, 104 million of them across our country. And this is in fact, the largest indigenous tribal population. We will be talking about residential schools for Indian tribal kids a bit later. 

MRA: This is Scrolls & Leaves, a world history podcast telling stories from the margins. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. 

GV: And I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan. And as we are gearing up to release Season One, this is a bonus episode on indigenous boarding schools. We’re talking today about a shameful history in many countries around the world, the forced education and assimilation of native and indigenous children.

MRA: Our episode today is actually a collaboration with our podcasting friends, Jac and Nat. They host the podcast How Did We Not Know That

Promo: Do you really know how the internet works? Can you even explain what communism actually is? Have you ever asked yourself, how did I not know that? I’m Jac. And I’m Nat. And we’re the hosts of How Did We Not Know That. A podcast that covers all the things that you should know. Listen as we have unscripted conversations about child labor, secret wars and stock market crashes. Find How Did We Not Know That wherever you listen to podcasts. 

GV: So you heard the experiences of Sally General at the beginning of this episode. And Jac and Nat will go further into the history of residential school systems in Canada. So we really encourage you to check out their episode.

MRA: Yeah, I think that’s going to be really good. There’s just so much, so many recollections and things that, um, you know, former students of those schools have talked about. 

I just want to talk a little bit about where we are. Um, we are on a Skype video call, literally sitting in a closet. I’m sitting in my usual closet where I record. Gayathri, I can see you surrounded on all four sides in this tiny little cubbyhole. 

GV: Yeah. It’s a new closet. But it’s still a closet.

MRA: So any lapses in, um, your listening experience are exactly because of this, because we’re sitting in closets. Um, it’s also a good reminder that we’re an indie podcast, so we don’t have a studio backing us. We, you know, operate on a shoestring budget and we’d really appreciate your help. Check out our website, for details on how you can support us. 

So Gayathri, we heard about Sally’s experience. So let’s talk a little bit more about the US residential school system for Native Americans. And I should say right off the bat, like, you know, this is a country I grew up in and I was never taught this history. I mean, we were taught very basic things about, you know, settlers moving West. Native Americans being displaced. But there was no education or discussion about what happened to the children in those tribes.

Where did they go? Um, so this whole boarding school system was completely new to me. 

Right from the time Europeans arrived, there were conflicts. There are what are called the Indian Wars, you know, with the indigenous people to take over their lands. And part of the settlers’ expansion and seizing and appropriation of the land was setting up schools to educate Native Americans.

So, I mean, school just sounds like an almost innocuous subject, like, oh, it’s just, it’s nice. It’s education. But when you think about it a little bit more, you know, school is a way to control children. You’ve had them, almost like they’re basically keeping the children hostage in these institutions. And by keeping the children in there, you can get the tribal communities to do what you want.

And their mission was very explicit. I mean, they did not mince words about that. They were meant to civilize or assimilate Native Americans into what is then, you know, becoming a Euro-American society. And I have to tell you this motto that I found. They don’t know who said it exactly, but it was sort of the prevailing sentiment at the time. And this is crazy. “Kill the Indian and you save the man.” 

GV: It’s terrible. So, this idea of having to educate Indians, did Indians, were they not educated before? Did they not have a system of education before Europeans got there?

MRA: Yeah, sure they did, sure. Like every tribal community probably had their own system of, you know, teaching their children. You know, this formal educational system that we all go through now is a modern construct. The indigenous wisdom, the ways of living, cultural, all those traditions were passed down, you know, in their own special way of what we could now call education. But yeah, they also did run their own schools on their tribal lands. So there was a system that was already set up. But of course, you know, when a European-American looks at it, it would be, not the proper way of educating someone. 

This history of the white people educating the native, it started very early on, almost from right when the Europeans arrived. And I can give you a couple of examples here. Way back in 1634, the Jesuits order set up a Catholic mission school in southern Maryland. And they were telling the chief of the Native American tribe there, “that it was to extend civilization and instruction to his ignorant race and show them the way to heaven.” So you can imagine there’s two things going on here, right? There’s the education plus what seems to be some sort of conversion to Christianity, right?

And then another example we have is Harvard University, which we all know, in the mid-1600s, Harvard College, as it was then called, had what they called an Indian College on its campus. And it was run by the Anglicans, a Christian sect. And they also, you know, educated Native American people in the Indian College.

GV: So Indian college, um, I’m assuming this is not like getting a fancy degree from Harvard for Indians. 

MRA: No, no, because the education system at that time, the colleges would be what we’re learning in high schools of this day. So it was, it was pretty basic stuff, nothing about, you know, sort of the Ivy League reputation of Harvard now. It was very different. Yeah. 

Okay. So what we’re going to talk about is, is much later. We’re going to talk about the 19th and 20th centuries, and this is where, you know, the US government itself started operating boarding schools for Native Americans, and they were also called Indian residential schools.

So Native American children attended these schools for 150 years. That’s a century and a half. So you can imagine hundreds of thousands of children have gone through this system. And just to give you a figure. By the 1920s, nearly 83 percent of Native American school-aged children were attending a residential school.

So the experience that they went through was pretty horrific. They were literally removed from their families and from their native tribes and their communities. And the school experience was complete immersion in a European-American culture. And the objective was to erase their Native American identities.

So how do you do that? They cut the kids’ hair. And we heard Sally talking about, you know, getting shaved and bald. And for a lot of Native American communities, you know, hair is a very, it’s a very cultural signifier for them. And it’s, it’s an important thing. And then besides cutting their hair, they would make them wear the American-style uniforms. So their native dress would not be allowed.

Another thing that we heard Sally talk about. She wasn’t allowed to speak her indigenous language. She had to speak English. So, you know, even one word escaping a kid’s mouth in their native language, they would be punished. And one of the punishments that someone talked about was their mouths literally washed out with lye soap.

GV: Oh, gosh.

MRA: Another way that they erased identity was to replace their tribal name with an English-language name. And then, of course, in many schools run by Christian orders, the kids had to attend church services, and a lot of times they were baptized as Christians. So they lost their identity and their religion.

But beyond this, you know, the conditions in the schools were really harsh. They were not properly run. There was a lot of malnutrition. Poor sanitation. Disease was rampant. And overcrowding. The kids were treated terribly. And there were investigations made in the 20th century that revealed there was widespread sexual, physical, and mental abuse. The children were put into solitary confinement. They were beaten, starved. They were injured.

And a lot of children died. And we have an example of that during the influenza pandemic in 1918 and 1919, you know, many of the Native American deaths in the US were attributed to students dying at these schools from influenza.

And a lot of times, you know, the administrators wouldn’t even tell their families that the kids were sick, or even when they died, they sometimes did not inform the families. So the families had no idea, you know, what the fate of their children was. 

So the first government-run school that was off of a reservation was something called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. And it opened in 1879 and it ran for 39 years. Hundreds of boarding schools, both private and government-run were modeled after this particular school. So at the peak of the government’s program, um, they just kept opening more and more and more schools across the United States. There were 350 of these residential boarding schools.

You have to wonder how did the government like actually get the kids into these schools? They made laws that made it easy to get them in there. So in 1891, the government passed a law and it actually allowed federal officers could go to a Native American community and literally forcibly take the children from the home and the reservation and put them into one of these boarding schools.

So the children were literally seized off the reservations. But another way that the government, you know, kind of forced the kids into the schools was to twist the arms of their families. So if you don’t send your kids to the school, you know, the government will withhold your food ration, your clothing, your money.

GV: Oh my gosh. 

MRA: And what happened to the kids when they finished school? You know, a lot of the kids, you know, they returned to the reservations, they felt so alienated. Because they’d been basically indoctrinated into a different culture. They were no longer speaking the language. They look different. And a lot of them had forgotten their cultural beliefs and traditions because they weren’t allowed to practice them.

GV: So it worked right? Like, what they were setting out to do, kind of worked?

MRA: Yeah. Yeah. It absolutely worked. So that’s not to mention the PTSD and the trauma from all the abuse that they suffered at the school. 

So we really don’t get anything to change the system until the 20th century. In 1934, that was the law The Indian Reorganization Act, many of the kids were removed from the boarding schools and they were put into public schools instead. And then a much later law, in 1975, I mean, that’s how late we’re talking, There was another act and it guaranteed that tribes would determine the education of their children and decide how the funds were spent. 

You know, with that in place, with those two laws in place and like more and more kids leaving the boarding school system, a lot of those boarding schools started shutting down and that happened into the 1980s, the 1990s. But believe it or not, there are still 15 boarding schools operating off-reservation even today. 

So, you know what, you have to wonder. Has there been any reckoning about this, what happened to the native children? Any accountability? No, not really. 

GV: So the US government has not apologized? People are not aware, nothing? Because in Canada, there has been very public apologies issued from the government and some efforts made at reconciliation.

MRA: The only thing we really have are a couple of fairly recent things. In June of this year, the Department of the Interior, which is a department in the federal government, it said it would search the grounds of former boarding schools to identify the remains of children.

And some identification has already happened. So in July, you know, just a month ago, nine Lakota children who had died at Carlisle. That’s that first boarding school that kind of started everything. And they were disinterred, removed from Carlisle, and returned to South Dakota. And they were buried in buffalo robes, during a ceremony on a tribal reservation.

GV: So no one knows how many kids have died on the whole? 

MRA: I couldn’t find any statistics on that. The hope is that now this investigation that’s going to start happening by the Department of the Interior will bring, you know, shed more light on that. And let us know, like, you know exactly how many children, you know, who died in this, in the system.

GV: As I heard you talk, it was quite incredible how much parallels there are between American history, as far as residential schools and indigenous communities go and the rest of the world. 

They were there across the world, pretty much wherever there was colonization by Europeans.

So yeah, one of the examples I’d like to tell you about is South America. 

In Southwest Peru. In the Amazon, there was this one tribe called the Arakambut and they were living along the river of Madre de Dios. They were an indigenous tribe. There were about 15,000 people. And until the 19th century, they didn’t have much contact with the outside world, but then there was a resource extraction boom, a lot of rubber tappers came from Bolivia and Brazil to the Madre de Dios river. The Arakambut had to leave their homeland. This is around the 1950s and they seek shelter near Catholic missions. And, the Catholic missions decide they have civilize them.

So the kids are taken into residential boarding schools, taught Spanish because, and this is a quote from one of the people running one of these mission schools. The savage language closes the soul to light and prevents him from fully entering into civilization, religion, and the life of the nation. So children are separated from their “savage” parents and educated. 

The idea is that indigenous children are lazy. So this is what they perceive when they look at these cultures , they see these kids sort of sitting at home and they don’t see education, but that does not mean that education does not exist in traditional systems. So kind of similar to what you said, um,

MRA: Yeah.

GV: The education is based on real life. So knowledge is not an end to itself, but rather it gets applied in very concrete situations. And it’s also communal education where anyone in a community can teach kids. 

So that is what got replaced when the European settlers went around the world, they decided looking at this way of living at these children, running rampant, doing child labor, they decided they have to be educated and, um, improved. 

MRA: I was wondering what like makes them so, Europeans or that, that cultural system, so sure that what they’re doing is, is the right thing, you know, and that not only that is their system, the right thing, but they must impose it on everybody else that they encounter.

I’m sure there’ve been studies done on it, but it’s just that, that, that thinking that is so interesting. Um, and kind of like, I just don’t understand that.

GV: Yeah. Even, even when you talk about them discovering various things, whether it’s, you know, discovering a new species or discovering South America, it’s everything that they know once it comes into this main knowledge system, it becomes discovered. Before that, apparently didn’t exist. So yeah, there is a lot of hubris there.

MRA: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. We make a joke about it now and call it Columbusing

GV: Right. So I want to go across the world to Australia. Australia was colonized by the British in 1788. 

It’s very analogous to what you mentioned in America. The children are housed in dorms, can’t meet their family. In Queensland, children are removed at the age of four and placed in dorms, and then they’re sent to work at 14. And the idea of education for these children is not so they occupy high levels of society, but rather the boys are meant for menial labor and girls are trained for domestic work.

So it’s not like they’re going to Harvard and things of that sort, it’s very basic education, uh, at the level that’s provided for 10-year-olds. So just in case, you’re thinking that all of this is wonderful and it may have helped, studies have found that compared to children who were removed, the ones who stayed at home, were much more likely to get a university education.

The kids who went to the boarding schools were two times as likely to be arrested and convicted of crime. There were two times as likely to be addicts and they were much more likely to use injectable drugs.

So I don’t know what the goal was to civilize them or to provide a, just, um, a labor stream for settlers. 

MRA: It sure sounds like a labor stream. If they’re making them learn menial things and housework, um, just in service

GV: yeah, yeah, pretty much.

Other than Australia, I’d like to tell you about India. Of course India was colonized by the British for a very, very long time, but I want to focus very narrowly on India’s tribes. In India, the people who are classified as indigenous people are tribals or Adivasis.

So scholars think based on just some genetic research that the first Indians arrived in India between 60,000 years ago, and 120,000 years ago. And all of us, all Indians have 50 to 60% of our DNA in common with those first Indians.

But Adivasis have a lot more in common and also culturally, they live a life that is outside our capitalist system, or at least they used to until recently. 

So the British did build residential schools for tribals. For example, in the Andamans and Andamans are these islands in the Indian Ocean to the south of India, and they were peopled by indigenous tribes, the Andamanese. And in 1858, there were about 5 to 8,000 and Andamanese on the islands, but in 1901, the number falls to 625.

That is, uh, yeah, in less than 50 years. And today there are only 50. So they were killed by disease. And in 1863, the British set up these homes called Andaman Homes to collect the Andamanese into one place. And the children were educated to have good manners, to wear clothes, to use a fork and knife, to practice cultivation, and to learn new trades and handicrafts along with the English language. So the goal was assimilation and the end result was only 625 people by 1901. Um,

MRA: Wow. Sounds more like annihilation

GV: Right. Yeah. So after that, moving forward to Indian independence, 1947.

So at that time, everyone thought tribals should not be assimilated. The British had these mission schools, but then they have to be converted into what are called Ashram schools.

And these Ashram schools would allow the tribal to be educated in their own language. And even the textbooks would be written in their own language. And there should be an ambiance of tribal culture in the schools.

So there was essentially, the heart was in the good place, a lot of good intentions. So that’s what it started out with. But then that, unfortunately, hasn’t happened. So there was one person who was very important AV Thakkar and he was an educator and he especially wanted to educate tribal children.

But then if you look at the point of view that he comes from, it’s very much like that of European colonizers. So there’s this one quote where he’s written about tribal children: it is desired to make him a hard-working citizen. It is necessary to tackle the Adivasi child. Hence, the necessity for residential vocational schools, where the child can be molded into an industrious citizen. 

So the idea again is that Adivasi children, in their culture are lazy and they have to be converted into an industrious member of society. 

So one of the things is that the tribals don’t have an agrarian settled way of life. They sometimes cultivate in some areas and then they will move and cultivate in another area. So land ownership is fluid. And that doesn’t really bode well for an economic system that’s based on land ownership. So, in 1964, there was this report essentially called for a fundamental reorganization of their way of life and transforming the system of shifting cultivation into an agricultural economy.

And also a development of a system of education that is related to these objectives. So you can kind of see where it goes in 1947, from this idea of holding on to tribal culture, to sort of bringing them into Indian economic goals.

MRA: Yeah.

GV: this is when you have these ashram schools being set up. Children’s hair are cut, including girls’ hair. The rationale being that it controls lice. And clothes are Western style. Tribal ornaments are forbidden. And even a child’s own name is officially replaced by a Hindu name, just as Native American children were given Christian names, like you mentioned. So traditional identity is removed. The kids are kept away from the parents from much of the year. When, when parents visit, uh, it’s under very restricted circumstances. They’re not allowed to pass on anything to the kids, including like, if they bring any food, they cannot take it back to the residential schools.

So there’s a huge gap being created between themselves and their communities. And again, the idea is once these kids kind of go back to these communities, they are reconditioned to look at it from this very mainstream Indian perspective, and then they can bring their ideas into these communities and transform them.

So there’s a 2012 report on these ashram schools that I just want to read from. “Most are poorly run and managed, reports of starvation, ill treatment and inadequate teaching have been widespread. Most remain sites for Sanskritization that begins with changing Adivasi names to Hindu names.” 

So I have a clip from an Indian boarding school, so here we go.

News Clip: An investigation by our correspondent Mausami Singh that exposes how young tribal girls are being sexually abused in government-run schools and homes in Chhattisgarh. Girls face violence and sexual abuse. Tribal girls admit on camera they were raped and abused by hostel officials. 

MRA: Oh, my God. That sounds exactly like some of the North American examples. Yeah.

GV: And that was from Chattisgarh from an investigation in 2013 into state run ashrams 

MRA: Yeah. Question here. So are these ashram schools run by the Indian government or are they more of like a religious function, like a religious organization creating the school?

GV: Um, so they’re hybrids, they’re private schools. Um, they’re also run by the Indian government . And, they also have religious, organization involvement. Like the RSS, for example, has heavy involvement in some tribal schools. I suspect some of the impetus here is people want to rebalance the impact that Christian missions have had.

But then this original idea of preserving tribal language , somehow that hasn’t taken off because the teachers are still not tribals and there is no attempt on the part of the teachers to learn the tribal language in order to educate the kids.

So, yeah, on, on paper, it looks like the policies are great, implementation is lax, and then you have different agendas that are also coming in. And one of the agendas is as you know, there are a lot of Adivasis in the resource rich parts of India.

So Chhattisgarh.

MRA: Jharkhand Yeah.

GV: uh, these coal mining regions, and that’s when you have industry coming in and mining interests. There are some really big residential schools today and these are heavily funded by mining interests. So the idea is you have these, industries coming in, they take the land and then they promise education of the kids who get sent to residential schools.

And you’re essentially ensuring that the land is available for resource extraction. This is something that’s been seen in other parts of the world. Like in Canada, for example, where there is natural gas extraction. So it’s called a banking model of education. It’s based on a relationship of domination and exploitation of the earth, as well as of individuals and labor. So this is being seen in a lot of places where you have these indigenous societies living in very close proximity to nature, but then if you want the resource of their land, then you have to displace people, bring them into new ideologies, and then you will have access to that particular land.

MRA: So again, education as a means of control, basically. Um, not only our children, but the whole community,

GV: Yeah. Yeah.

MRA: I presume the parents these days, tribal parents, would have a choice, you know, to send their children to these schools or not, like, what would they, what would they gain by sending them to the schools said free education or beyond that?

GV: They do get free education. With a lot of displacement that has happened in the mining belts of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh uh, they’re living in pretty terrible conditions. And also I think, just broadly speaking the world that we’re all living in, when kids see some of the luxuries that people outside have the cars and the televisions and even cell phones,

There is a question of whether these indigenous ways of living seem relevant to them. Because we are living in a very consumerist society. So yeah, a part of me kind of wondered, was I romanticizing all this?

MRA: Hmm.

GV: In terms of saying, indigenous cultures, different ways of viewing the world, it’s all wonderful, but there probably needs to be a happy medium or perhaps just to return to what India wanted at the dawn of independence, which is an integrated system of learning, which allows tribal kids to hold on to their culture, uh, their language.

And, also their ways of knowledge and their relationship with nature. And at the same time learn some of our education so they have a choice. 

MRA: Yeah. Yeah. I think the role of the corporate interests in all of this, this is extremely disturbing and problematic. You know, sort of that capitalist, claw coming down and, and like determining things that have nothing to do with them. Educational system should be about, anything but resource extraction. And so, yeah, just, just hearing about how, how much control they have over, over the system is kind of really, really strange.

GV: Yeah. The other thing I found interesting was that, some of these residential schools like KISS, which has 25,000 kids enrolled it seems, um, some of them get funding from the world bank and the United nations to educate the kids, teach them English, bring them into a globalized economy. So we’re essentially saying that the education system that you and I would value and would probably want for our kids are not necessarily a good thing in certain contexts. 

And yeah, there is a certain cognitive dissonance when you think about it. 

MRA: Right. So, so basically the tribal educational system is still going on today in, in present day, India. Is that, is that correct?

GV: Yes, in that some kids choose not to go to schools, if their parents so desire. in India there is a requirement that all kids are educated. The issue is some of these places are so remote, it doesn’t make sense to set up schools and they wouldn’t be able to hire teachers to create day schools.

But there are some day schools and you see similar things, but at least they’re not taken away wholesale from their culture and kept sequestered in these regimented, sort of militarized systems. And I say military because of discipline, right? Like residential schools it’s about the school bell.

So, um, yeah.

MRA: Well, we’re certainly seeing so many of the same threads across countries, across time periods. It just seems like, you know, this idea of civilizing a certain segment of society, and how that word has been twisted to serve the needs of the colonizer, if you want to call them that, it’s just the same things. Changing names, cutting hair, forbidding language, all of those things. It’s just, it’s crazy how it keeps repeating, across this whole history. 

GV: I think in India, because we have been under British rule for such a long time, we have already taken into ourselves the European point of view. So it’s not necessarily that we are imposing Indian ideas on to tribals, but rather European idea on to tribal society.

So I just see this as an extension of what happened as Europeans went around the world, we have sort of taken it on and we’re sort of imposing it onto others because this is the economic system that we all live in these days. So doesn’t seem like there are many alternatives out there.

MRA: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we, I hope that you’ve learned a bit about the history. It’s not exhaustive by any means. just an overview on what happened in Canada, in America, Australia, south America, India. And perhaps other countries that we didn’t get a chance to look into, but something to look into further to educate ourselves about the horrific treatment that a lot of indigenous people experienced worldwide.

GV: Yeah, thanks so much for listening and do stay tuned for Trade Winds, which is our season one. It’s coming up in a few weeks. We are very excited for you to hear these full episodes in 3d sound and covering 2000 years of history in the Indian ocean world.

MRA: And for more information and even more episodes, you can visit and we’ll be posting updates and more great content on our social media. So be sure to follow us there. We’re on Instagram at scrollsandleaves. Twitter scrollsleaves. And you can also like us on Facebook. And we’ll be back in two more weeks. See you then.

Listen to the Bonus Episode here.

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