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Lives Lost, Culture Lost: The Forgotten History of Residential Schools


DURANGO, Colorado – The last day Dzabahe can remember praying like her ancestors did was on the morning of the 1950s when she was taken to residential school.

In the first light of day, she grabbed a small pouch and ran across the desert to a spot facing the rising sun to sprinkle the taa dih’deen – or corn pollen – in all four directions, thus offering the honor for the new day.

Within hours of arriving at school, he was told not to speak his own Navajo language. The leather skirt her mother sewn for her and the beaded moccasins were taken away and wrapped in plastic, like garbage.

She was given a dress to wear and her long hair was cut, which is taboo in Navajo culture. Before she was sent to the dormitory, one last thing was taken: her name.

“You have a belief system. You have a lifestyle you’ve already embraced, ”said Bessie Smith, now 79, who continues to use the name given to her at the old Arizona residential school.

“And then he’s so carelessly removed,” she said. “It’s like you’re being raped.”

The recent finds of anonymous graves at government-run schools for Indigenous children in Canada – 215 graves in British Columbia, 750 in Saskatchewan – have surfaced like a long-forgotten nightmare.

But for many Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States, the nightmare has never been forgotten. Instead, the findings are reminiscent of how many living Native Americans were the product of an experiment of forcibly removing children from their families and culture.

Many of them still struggle to understand who they were and who they are.

In the century and a half that the US government has run boarding schools for Native Americans, hundreds of thousands of children have been housed and educated in a network of institutions created to “civilize the savage.” In the 1920s, according to one group, nearly 83% of Native American school-aged children attended such schools.

“When people do things to you when you grow up, it affects you spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally,” said Russell Box Sr., a member of the Southern Ute tribe who was 6 when he was sent to an office. boarding school. in southwest Colorado.

“We couldn’t speak our language, we couldn’t sing our prayer songs,” he said. “To this day, maybe that’s why I can’t sing.

The discovery of the bodies in Canada led Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the department that once ran residential schools in the United States – and herself the granddaughter of those forced to attend them – to announce that the government would search the grounds of the old facilities to identify the remains of the children.

That many children died in schools on this side of the border is not in question. As recently as last week, nine Lakota children who perished at Residential School in Carlisle, Pa., were exhumed and buried in buffalo robes during a ceremony at a tribal reservation in South Dakota.

Many former student deaths have been recorded in federal archives and newspaper obituaries. Based on what these documents indicate, the search for the bodies of other students is already underway at two former Colorado schools: the Grand Junction Indian School in western Colorado, which closed in 1911, and the Fort Lewis Indian School, which closed in 1910 and reopened. near Durango like Fort Lewis College.

“Horrible things have happened in residential schools,” said Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College. “It is important that we bring this to light.

The idea of ​​assimilating Native Americans through education dates back to the earliest history of the colonies.

In 1775, the Continental Congress passed a bill allocating $ 500 for the education of Native American youth. By the late 1800s, the number of residential school students had grown from a handful to 24,000, and the appropriate amount had climbed to $ 2.6 million.

Throughout the decades of their existence, schools have been viewed as both a cheaper and faster way to deal with the “Indian problem”.

Carl Schurz, Home Secretary in the late 1800s, argued that it cost almost $ 1 million to kill a Native American in wartime, compared to just $ 1,200 to give his child eight years of schooling, according to historian David Wallace’s account. Adams in “Education for Extinction”. “A great general said that the only good Indian is a dead man,” wrote Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of one of the first residential schools, in 1892. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment. , but only in this: That all the Indians present in the race are dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.

Those who survived the schools described the violence as routine. As punishment, Norman Lopez was forced to sit in a corner for hours at Ute Vocational School in southwest Colorado, where he was sent around the age of 6. noted. Then the teacher picked him up a second time and threw him face first to the ground, he said.

“I thought it was part of the school,” said Mr Lopez, now 78. “I didn’t think it was abusive.”

A less violent incident marked him more, he said.

His grandfather taught him to carve a flute from a cedar branch. When the boy brought the flute to school, his teacher broke it and threw it in the trash.

He had already understood how special the cedar flute and its native music were. “That’s what God is. God speaks through the air, ”he said of the music his grandfather taught him.

He said the lesson was clear, both in the need to comply and the need to resist.

“I had to shut up. There are plenty of them where it comes from. Tree is not going to give up, ”he said of cedar. “I will not give up.”

Decades later, Mr. Lopez returned to the flute. He sculpts and records them in a homemade studio set up in his home on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in Towaoc, Colorado.

At the same boarding school, Mr Box was punished so severely for speaking ute that he refused to teach his children the language, in a bid to protect them from the pain he endured, his ex said -wife, Pearl E. Casias.

Years of alcoholism followed, he said. Her marriage fell apart. It was not until middle age that he reached a crossroads.

– I wanted to be here, he said, showing his heart. “My mind had longed here to stand in the lodge,” he said, referring to the medicine lodge the dancers enter during the annual Sundance, one of the most important ceremonies for the Ute people. . “Then one day I was like, ‘Now I’m going to get up. And when I said that inside of me, there was a little flame.

He went to Sundance for the first time. He stopped drinking. This year, one of her daughters contacted her mother to ask if she could teach her how to make beaded moccasins.

But for many, the wounds just don’t heal.

Jacqueline Frost, 60, was raised by her Aunt Ute, a boarding school matron who embraced the system and became its executor.

Ms. Frost said she remembered the beatings. “I don’t know if it was a broom or a mop, I just remember the stick part, and my aunt threw it at me,” she said, adding: “There were belts. There were hangers. There were shoes. There were sticks, branches, wire.

She too turned to alcohol. “Even though I’ve been to so many tips,” she said, “I always said, ‘Why am I like this? Why do I have this ugly feeling inside of me? ‘ “

By the turn of the century, a debate had erupted over whether it was better to “bring civilization to the Indians” by building schools on tribal lands. In 1902, the government completed construction of a boarding school on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colorado – the school Mr. Box and Mr. Lopez both attended.

The impact of the school, which was closed decades ago, can be summed up in two statistics: In the 1800s, when federal agents roamed the reserve for children, they complained that there was no had almost no adults who spoke English. Today, about 30 people in a tribe of less than 1,500 people – only 2% – are fluent in the Ute language, said Lindsay J. Box, a spokesperson for the tribe. (Mr. Box is his uncle.)

For decades, Ms. Smith barely spoke Navajo. She thought she had forgotten it, until years later at the Denver hospital where she worked as director of patient admissions, a Navajo couple walked in with their dying baby and the tongue returned, a she declared.

It marked a turning point for her. She realized that the vocabulary she thought had been defeated was still there. Turning around, she recognized the modest but meaningful ways in which she had resisted.

From her first day in the dormitory, she never again practiced the morning prayer in the four directions.

Unable to do it in physical form, instead she learned how to do it internally: “I did it in my heart,” she said.

In her old age, she now makes jewelry using traditional elements, such as “ghost pearls” made from the dried berries of juniper. When she started selling online, she chose the domain: www.dzabahe.com.

It is her birth name, the one that was taken from her at the boarding school, the one whose Navajo meaning has endured: “woman who fights”.





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