OPINION: White violence not a historical truth: it’s a reality with a history
Although slavery was abolished and much progress has been made for the First Nations and all minority groups in these countries, the ideology of white supremacy and the danger of white violence are still very much with us today
Just a few days ago, a white man killed a Muslim family in Ontario Canada. Though widely reported as a singular incident not connected to any other recent or historical acts of violence, it was in fact the latest in a long series of ideologically-driven white supremacist violence. The most immediate connection that springs to mind, also from Canada, is the horrifying discovery of an unmarked mass grave in which are buried at least 215 indigenous children who had perished at the hands of white supremacists.
The remains of these 215 children were discovered at a site that used to house Canada’s biggest residential school for indigenous children. It was run by the Catholic Church from the 1890s through the 1970s, until the federal government shut it down. These latest reports on the mass graves are part of a twenty-year effort by Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nations people in order to find the missing children in many of the unmarked mass graves at former school sites such as Kamloops. Between 1883 and 1996, around 150,000 children passed through the Canadian version of this system, which was eventually abolished. Thousands of unaccounted-for children have yet to be found. They were never seen again by their families. When pressed for answers, the schools would tell families that their children had died, run away or simply disappeared, and they would generally refuse to return the body in case of death.
The brand of hatred that has motivated white people to assault Muslims in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe is intimately connected to the ideology that created the “Indian boarding school system” in the US and Canada. Indian boarding schools were part of America’s and Canada’s so-called “civilizing mission”. They were the quintessential example of how white supremacy had been at the heart of both of these countries since the earliest days of their founding, rather than being a marginal, radical, and fringe ideology. European settlers wanted to civilize these “savages”, seeing their own Anglo-Saxon Christian culture as vastly superior to the many different tribal languages and cultural practices that the indigenous peoples had.
Richard Henry Pratt, an American general, had captured a group of indigenous men as prisoners of war. He taught them how to speak, read and write English, dressed them in military uniforms and trained them to do labor. He photographed the results of this assimilation experiment and presented them to the federal government. This is how he was able to secure funding for the first Indian American boarding school, set up to “kill the Indian and save the man,” as Pratt called it. The schools quickly spread across the US and other colonial countries like Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, Canada.
With the aid of Christian missionaries, the Canadian and American governments forcibly removed thousands of indigenous children from their families and made them attend these schools, where speaking indigenous languages and their cultural traditions and spiritual practices were prohibited. Children who did not comply with the rules were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as violence. According to some eyewitness accounts, priests, for example, would rape students, and when they got pregnant and gave birth, the babies would be killed, in some cases brutally by being burned in furnaces.
Indigenous children were forced to cut their braids, a very important part of their culture. Their names were changed. As punishment for speaking in their native language, some were forced to wash their mouths with soap, as if to imply that their mother tongues were dirty.
In his account of the incidents, a survivor of one of these schools said  that braids were a token of mourning in his tribal culture, and they were cut only when a relative died; the closer the relative, the closer the cut to the head. When the missionaries cut almost all of his hair, he was left wondering whether his mother had died.
Boarding schools proved to be a very effective strategy in harming native family networks, culture, and way of life, by targeting the most valuable members of these communities: the children. Many children forgot their mother tongues almost completely, so they were unable to communicate with their families. While assimilating children, governments continued to steal land from the First Nations. If a native family refused to send their children to these schools, they were threatened with imprisonment or the loss of much-needed food rations. Some families were seen camping outside these schools just to be closer to their children. Many children were reported trying to run away, but even if they succeeded, their families and tribes were located too far away from these schools, making it practically impossible for them to reunite.
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the Canadian government, heard thousands of witness testimonies over the course of six years. The commission released a report in 2015 with the conclusion that the Indian residential school system was a form of cultural genocide. They also requested the Pope to issue a formal apology, which he did not do.
The indigenous activism that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, along with the civil rights movement in the US, campaigned for the closure of these schools in the US. During the same time period, most of the Canadian boarding schools also closed.
As the boarding school era came to an end, white supremacy morphed into a new systematic form of oppression: the Indian adoption project , a government program that promoted the adoption of native American children by white families. This was a cheaper way to assimilate indigenous people than running boarding schools. It was claimed that these indigenous children, dubbed “the forgotten children”, were not wanted by their own families. The truth, however, was far from that. These children were ripped apart from their families based on shady reports prepared by the social services about child neglect, unfit parenting, or even a household with too many people. The last one was particularly strange because extended family was a big part of many indigenous cultures. As a result, hundreds of children were placed with white families, and some of them later in life reported that they had been physically, verbally and sexually abused by these adoptive and foster families. After many years of activism, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in the US in 1977, finally preventing the removal of Indian children from their families unless absolutely necessary, and when such a case arises, the child is placed with their extended family if possible or another indigenous family. To this day, some conservative white families oppose this act.
When the mass grave was discovered earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that it was a chapter in a dark history of his country. One of the biggest lies about violence against indigenous people in Canada and the US is that it is a historical truth, while, in actuality, it is a present reality with a history. These kinds of statements just serve to reinforce the false notion that white violence is a thing of the past, if at all acknowledged.
White supremacy and white violence are neither from the past, nor are they marginal. The US and Canada were both built by slave labor on stolen indigenous lands. Although slavery was abolished and much progress has been made for the First Nations and all minority groups in these countries, the ideology of white supremacy and the danger of white violence are still very much with us today, as evidenced by recent events such as the murder of a Muslim family and the discovery of a mass grave.
By Didem Kaya-Bayram
* The author received her BA in American Studies from Yale University and her MA in Science Technology Society Studies from Istanbul Technical University. She has spent the last five years with TRT as a digital content and strategy specialist.* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.