Confronting a legacy of damage Viewpoint: Having carried the pain of his own memories for many years, the author offers a personal view of a controversial aspect of American history: the Indian boarding schools of the late 1800s to the 1960s.

January 22, 1998|By Tim Giago | Tim Giago,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- In Canada, they were called "residential schools," in the United States "boarding schools." Whatever the name, they served the identical purpose of stripping Indian children of their heritage.

Some were operated by the federal governments of the United States or Canada; others were church-run and often received government funds. Both carried out the campaign to de-Indianize the tribal people, no matter the cost in personal suffering.

"These schools stole the most precious part of tribal people's lives," says Phil Lane, coordinator of the Four Worlds International Institute in Lethridge, Alberta. The institute is supporting a campaign by several indigenous peoples to bring multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the church organizations for alleged abuses ranging from sexual assault to starvation and beatings.

But beyond money, Four Worlds -- which has ties to aboriginal peoples in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States and Canada -- is insisting on a political process comparable to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reveal the full scope of damage to the social, cultural and political structures of the indigenous communities.

"Resolution of this issue," Lane says, "is no different than fighting for the return of gold stolen from the Jewish people by the Nazis and forgotten in Swiss banks. . . . Sooner or later the people responsible must be held accountable for their actions."

This month, Canada apologized for its historical dealings with its indigenous populations. But in the United States, an apology is not even an issue yet.

Like my five sisters and one brother, I was placed into the not-so-loving care of the Jesuit priests and Dominican nuns at Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota when I was 6 years old. It was in September, the beginning of a school year, and many of the students were new. I remember lying in my bunk in the boys' dormitory at night and listening to the other boys trying to stop their tears and stifle their crying.

The Indian children from around the reservation entered the boarding schools with pure hearts and, more often than not, left with broken spirits many years later.

The destruction of the traditional and cultural kinship that is such a powerful force in the lives of Indians has left a legacy of damage that has done much to contribute to the abuse of alcohol among them. The job of the priests and the Bureau of Indian Affairs officials was to destroy all vestiges of culture and pride.

We lost the connection to our parents and grandparents that is so vital to the continuation of our culture and spirituality. From our parents and grandparents, we learned about all the things that made us Indian. This close kinship created a bond between child, parents and grandparents that was known as the "tiospaye" -- "extended family" in the Lakota language.

In the school, the children were shorn of their hair, dressed in chambray shirts and bib overalls, lined up in military ranks, marched to and from all activities, and forced to attend church services six days a week and twice on Sunday.

If we were caught speaking our own language we might get a beating with a leather strap or be forced to bite down on a fat rubber band that would be snapped back against our lips. The psychological damage done by these beatings often resulted in the children becoming very cruel to each other in turn. Many of us left these institutions finding it hard to accept love or affection.

The damage the boarding schools did to the Indian people from the late 1800s until the 1960s is felt to this day. The cycle of abuse -- physical, sexual, psychological, cultural and spiritual -- has gone from one generation to the next. Many Indian men and women were so badly damaged that they themselves committed the same abuses upon their children. My parents, also products of the Indian boarding school, could never express love or affection to me.

I carried the pain of my own memories for many years. When I found it nearly impossible to cope, I would sit down and write a poem about those days at the mission. After many years, as I added a new poem to the collection I kept stored in a shoe box, I noticed the box was pretty full. I sent copies of the poems to Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla, and his wife, Jeanette Henry Costo, a Cherokee, publishers of the Indian Historian Press Inc., based in San Francisco.

In 1978, my book of poetry, "The Aboriginal Sin," was published. I never believed it would be a great seller. But to many Indians, it was a small book that helped them to relive and thereby confront some of the demons they kept within themselves from their days as students at the Indian boarding schools.

The people who started the residential and boarding school experiment actually believed that they were doing a good thing. Their philosophy: "Kill the Indian, save the child."

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