My mother died while surviving civilization. Although she outlived a traumatic childhood immersed in its teachings, she carried the pain of those lessons for her entire life. Like most Native American peoples, our family’s story is touched by the legacy of boarding schools, institutions created to destroy and vilify Native culture, language, family, and spirituality. My mother, Bernice, was a survivor of Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School on the Ojibwe reservation in Odanah, Wisconsin. She called it the “Sister School,” a world ruled by nuns clad in long black robes.
Two hundred years ago, on March 3, 1819, the Civilization Fund Act ushered in an era of assimilationist policies, leading to the Indian boarding-school era, which lasted from 1860 to 1978. The act directly spurred the creation of the schools by putting forward the notion that Native culture and language were to blame for what was deemed the country’s “Indian problem.”
Native families were coerced by the federal government and Catholic Church officials into sending their children to live and attend classes at boarding schools. (About one-third of the 357 known Indian boarding schools were managed by various Christian denominations.) According to the Act’s text, Christian missionaries and other “persons of good moral character” were charged with introducing Native children to “the habits and arts of civilization” while encouraging them to abandon their traditional languages, cultures, and practices.
This is what achieving civilization looked like in practice: Students were stripped of all things associated with Native life. Their long hair, a source of pride for many Native peoples, was cut short, usually into identical bowl haircuts. They exchanged traditional clothing for uniforms, and embarked on a life influenced by strict military-style regimentation. Students were physically punished for speaking their Native languages. Contact with family and community members was discouraged or forbidden altogether. Survivors have described a culture of pervasive physical and sexual abuse at the schools. Food and medical attention were often scarce; many students died. Their parents sometimes learned of their death only after they had been buried in school cemeteries, some of which were unmarked.