Catholic boarding schools, U.S. policies, swindled Indigenous families into paying for their children’s assimilation

Much has been written about how Indian children suffered tremendous physical, emotional and sexual abuse in Indian boarding schools during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some even died. Their cultures were beat out of them. They were punished for speaking their Native languages. Taken from their parents, they didn’t learn parenting skills. They were forced to take colonial names, wear colonial clothes, and worship the colonial God — “a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide,”according to the Native American Rights Fund.

A less well known and disturbing fact is that Native American families were taken advantage of, and ended up paying tuition to Catholic boarding schools for their children’s traumatic assimilation, according to an article published Tuesday by Type Investigations, in collaboration with In These Times.

The Catholic Church ran about 100 out of the 400 boarding and day schools in the United States, the article said. Other boarding schools were run by the government or other religious denominations.

Here’s the article’s big takeaways:

… for the greater part of the 20th century, the federal government routed funds—designated as direct payments for Native people—to Catholic mission schools, draining families of millions of dollars by today’s measures.

For many parents, some of whom were barely literate, the approval to send their children to these religious boarding schools took the form of thumbprints. Pressed on government forms, signed and witnessed by church and government officials, these thumbprints authorized the mission schools to take portions of treaty and trust funds—owed to Native families by the federal government in exchange for their land—to pay tuition.

Ostensibly, Native Americans chose to send their children to these mission schools rather than free, government-funded schools. But federal schools were rarely built on reservations in the early 20th century. With the distribution of rations and other goods also sometimes dependent on Native children attending school, Native Americans were often effectively coerced into paying for their own assimilation. …

Some former students say they were asked to cover school costs in yet another way—by working for half the school day. Tom Deragon, 69, attended St. Mary’s on the Bad River Reservation from first through eighth grade. “In second grade, I started taking care of the chicken coop … before school” for the nuns and priests, says Deragon. “I did that for five, six years. … I was paying off a book bill.”

Click here for the full article.

There have been recent efforts at truth telling and healing around the deep trauma boarding schools inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and communities:

The U.S. government’s efforts at an apology to Native Americans for genocide have been flat-out embarrassing.

In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed a watered-down, broad-strokes apology to Indian peoples. It was buried in a Defense Appropriations Bill. It included a clause to protect the United States from litigation based on the apology. It never received any attention.

Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, said at the time the bill passed that “there has been an ‘overwhelming silence‘” regarding the apology.

“‘There were no public announcements, there were no press conferences, there was no national attention, much less international,’ said the Citizen Potawatomi Nation member.” …

“I have had my doubts on whether this is a true or meaningful apology, and this silence seems to speak very loudly on that point.”

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