Legacy of Native American Boarding Schools
by David "Katya" Ketchum | LA Progressive
It’s not a secret that I love studying history; I believe it is a vital discipline for understanding and transforming the world. And as shocking and terrifying as human cruelty has been throughout recorded history, it’s also heartening to observe, time and time again, the movements opposing oppression that have always existed. This is also important to remember if you are tempted to excuse the complicity of people in the past by insisting that they were just products of their time. By studying history, we also become more aware of our own responsibilities and possibilities in the present.
A Legacy of Failure, Cruelty, and War
One of these important historical moments in US history, when there were multiple and large movements to either oppose or work for social justice, followed the American Civil War.
Optimism that Reconstruction would bring about true and lasting healing and change in a nation ravaged and traumatized by the horrors of slavery and war, were combined with optimism that there could be a change in the government’s policies regarding Native peoples.
President Ulysses S. Grant and the events that took place in his administration are a good example of these trends. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, for example, were aimed at providing federal support to protect the rights of Black Americans and oppose the Ku Klux Klan. Under the direction of Attorney General Amos Ackerman, hundreds of Klansmen were tried, often by Black juries, and imprisoned. Thousands more received fines or warnings, or even fled to escape prosecution. As a result, the KKK as a formal organization was in wreckage by 1872.
At the same time, Grant wanted to find a different approach to US relations with Native peoples. He worked closely with his longtime friend and colleague, Ely S. Parker, and made Parker his Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker, whose Native name was Donehogawa, was a member of the Seneca nation and the first Indigenous person to hold the post of Commissioner. Together, they developed policies that included providing federal troops to protect reservation borders from settlers and that ultimately would have provided a pathway to citizenship for Indigenous people.
These plans were vehemently opposed and undermined, and opponents eventually falsely accused Parker of embezzling money. He was exonerated, but Congress stripped power from the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Parker resigned in 1871.
Plans and relationships fell apart, and Grant ended up waging war against the very people he had thought he would protect, including “the Modoc War in 1873, the Red River War in 1874, and the Great Sioux War in 1876.”
By 1885, the year Grant died, Donehogawa, once Grant’s enthusiastic colleague, described the fate of Indigenous peoples in North America. Resisting the racist idea that blamed Indigenous people for their troubles, he wrote:
“The disabilities, disadvantages and wrongs do not result, however, either primarily, consequently or ultimately from their tribal condition and native inheritances, but solely, wholly and absolutely from the unchristian treatment they have always received from Christian white people … . The tenacity with which the remnants of this people have adhered to their tribal organizations and religious traditions is all that has saved them thus far from inevitable extinguishment.”
Grant’s campaign slogan had been “Let us have peace,” and he seemed sincere in his vision to reform federal Indian policies. So how did it happen that, as Alysa Landry pointed out, “some of the worst massacres and grossest injustices in history [occurred] while Ulysses S. Grant was in office”? This is an important question to ask, if we want to avoid the kind of pitfalls that kept others’ from true healing and change.
In Grant’s case, central to his failures was “the development of millions of acres of federal public lands” and “the private acquisition of land by pioneers, spectators and railroad and mining companies,” made possible by Grant’s approval of the Timber Culture, General Mining, and Desert Lands Acts, which all expanded the land available to homesteaders and settlers – at the expense of Native peoples. In the end, Grant’s hopeful slogan, “Let us have peace,” was no match for the reality of expansionism. In Landry’s words,
“Grant realized that his expansionist goals required the removal of Indians from desirable land. His Indian Peace Policy, designed to reform the Indian Bureau and remove corrupt agents, also called for rigorous agricultural training on reservations and established schools and churches that would transform Indians into Christian citizens.”