These Indigenous Historians Compile What We Know About Residential Schools


Since 2006, Denise Lajimodiere, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, has spent hours rummaging through the archives for records of Indian residential schools.

“It’s tedious,” she said. “It’s a dusty job.”

And exhausting and traumatic. The archives are incomplete, but what researchers like Lajimodière have discovered reveals a shameful story. Children were often abused, separated from their families and stripped of their culture and language. The archives contain stories of loss and resistance, but they are also important for what is missing. Many children have disappeared and never returned home.

For Lajimodière, this work is extremely personal, and that’s one of the reasons why she does it.

“I was not sent to residential school,” she says. “But my parents and grandparents were. My story is the story of millions of Indigenous people and the intergenerational trauma and historical trauma. We are still in this unresolved heartache.

Archives are scattered across the country – in government offices, church basements, historical societies and museums. Some recordings don’t exist at all, at least not formally. Lajimodière, 70, only found out about a school in Wisconsin after his grandchildren dived in trash cans following the death of a 100-year-old neighbor. The woman’s family threw away a lot of her belongings, and the children found an old album that mentioned a boarding school that Lajimodière had never heard of: Bethany Indian Mission in Wittenberg, Wisconsin.

To date, Lajimodière has counted 406 residential schools in the United States, some run by the federal government, both on and off reserve, and some run by religious organizations. In addition to identifying the schools, she also interviewed residential school survivors and their descendants – including members of her own family – and recorded several of their stories in her book “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Residential School Survivors.

Lajimodière is one of many Indigenous scholars and historians who have been compiling information on residential schools for decades. They often had to defend the importance of their research in academia, working with limited funds. After Lajimodière retired from North Dakota State University, where she taught, she applied for grants to continue her work in the archives, but was always refused.

The residential school era, which ran from around 1879 to the 1930s – or longer depending on who you ask – is a piece of history unknown or forgotten by many in the United States, although native communities know it. good. The federal initiative announced earlier this summer by Home Secretary Deb Haaland to examine the legacy of boarding school policies suddenly brought national attention to the issue, and for the first time, researchers like Lajimodiere and their tribes could receive significant support and funding from the government to continue their vital work.

Lajimodiere is a founder and past president of the Minneapolis-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which represents tribes across the country. In 2016, the coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Indian Education to try to find out the names of all federal residential schools and children who died or went missing while they were students.

Residential school survivors at the 2019 National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition Annual Conference in Tulalip, Washington. Courtesy photo.

Their request was denied. The office said they didn’t have the information.

Today, the coalition is pushing Congress to pass a bill first introduced by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Haaland last year to create a truth commission similar to the one in Canada that helped shed light on the history of residential school atrocities in the region. The recent initiative announced by Haaland set a target date of April 2022 for submitting a report of their findings, which the coalition said is not sufficient given the difficulty in locating the documents. The commission, they hope, will continue the work.

It is not yet clear what the federal initiative will accomplish, but for Brenda Child, who is Red Lake Ojibwe and professor of American and Native American studies at the University of Minnesota, it is vitally important to fully understand the story so that the government can respond to it appropriately.

When Child began her research on Native American residential schools as a history student in the 1980s, she had to lobby against many academics of the time, who argued that residential schools were no longer very relevant after 1905. She argued that residential schools were actually an important part of Native American life for a few more decades, until the Great Depression and the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. This law was intended to end the allocation of tribal lands and to end the policies of cultural assimilation of Native Americans, including boarding schools. But Child says there is more to the story.

“The residential schools were meant to dispossess the Indians,” Child said. “In the 1930s, the great land grab was over. White Earth had then lost 92% of its reserve land, so there is no longer a need for boarding schools. Indians can go to public school.

Like Lajimodière, Child has spent hours rummaging through archives to find stories of boarding school students. As a history student writing her thesis, Child was told she wouldn’t find much at the National Archives, but she went anyway and found tons of letters from students and parents. In addition to stories of loss, illness and death, she also found stories of resistance – something she finds missing from many of the subject’s covers today. Much of what she found is documented in her book “Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940”.

Linda Grover found this postcard from the Vermilion Lake Indian School near Tower, Minnesota, where some of her relatives were hanging out. The postmark is 1911.

A federal initiative will not be able to return stolen childhoods to survivors and victims of residential schools. But Child says there are other things they can – and should – come back to atone for the time.

“The land can be returned to the Indians. The United States is not in the habit of returning the land to the Indians, but look, we are out there treating land around the Mississippi and protecting our water right now, ”Child said, referring to the efforts of the natives to stop construction. Enbridge’s Line 3 oil sands pipeline in the northern half of the state. “There are all kinds of ways to be forgiven. ”

Another obvious way would be scholarships and free tuition at state universities, she said.

Linda Grover, professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, says there is a guideline today that links the residential school experience to the education of Native American children in public schools.

Early in her career as a historian, Grover researched and wrote about Vermilion Lake Indian School, a federal boarding school on the Bois Forte reserve where his grandparents met. She found that recruiters used coercion to convince parents to send their children to school. They would argue “the futility of efforts to continue living Indian”. The boys were forced to cut their hair and all the students had to wear military-style uniforms. The punishments included spanking and flogging.

Decades later, while Grover was studying at UMD, she told her aunt she was taking a history class. Her aunt replied, “Don’t let them push you out of there. ”

Grover said his aunt’s generation had to fight hard to be left out. “From her generation, that’s how she saw it,” Grover said. “To feel that this is your place as much as that of anyone else and to be truly proud of who you are as an Aboriginal person is so important.

Grover’s sentiment that Native Americans are excluded from education, however, persists. In the early 2000s, Grover worked as Director of Indian Education for Duluth Public Schools. There she witnessed other barriers to education for Indigenous students. When the No Child Left Behind law was passed, he was told that they could not use the money for educational programs related to Indigenous cultures.

Today, she says, things are improving. Her grandchildren can learn the Ojibwe language at school if they wish. But memories of the recent past are fresh.

One of the most lasting impacts of the residential school era is the intergenerational trauma in the families who survived. In addition to identifying residential schools and their students, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is also working with communities to ameliorate their trauma and find a way forward. In one editorial in The Washington Post, Haaland said this was also an important part of the initiative: “The first step towards justice is to recognize these painful truths and fully understand their impacts so that we can unravel the threads of trauma and injustice that persist. “

Lajimodière hopes part of the initiative will include sending resources and funds to tribes to pay for therapy and counseling, including from doctors. While relieved by the attention residential schools are finally receiving, she worries about how this could re-traumatize survivors and their families. She has personally experienced the impact of residential schools and understands how difficult it is to break the cycle of trauma.

We need to find out how to speak to the next generation and convey the truth in an age appropriate way that doesn’t re-traumatize as much as possible, ”she said. “We have to know it, learn it and understand colonialism. But it must also be accompanied by resilience, strength and hope.


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