POLITICS

Canada Just Confronted Its 'Cultural Genocide' Of Native People. Why Can't The U.S. Do The Same?

06/05/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

My grandmother still recalls the day when the Indian agent came to the Canim Lake Indian Reserve in British Columbia, Canada, to round up the children and take them away to the residential school. She remembers how her parents tried to hide her with a cousin in a backwoods cabin, and how the whole community wailed when government officials took the children on the back of a cattle truck to the Williams Lake residential school.

The Roman Catholic Church operated the school with funding from the Canadian government. Its mandate -- like Indian schools operated throughout Canada and the U.S. at the time -- was to proselytize, civilize and assimilate the local Native peoples with a Catholic and industrial school education.

My grandmother recalls how the little girls would speak their native language in hushed tones, calling the nuns "kenkeknem," which means "black bear" in the Shuswap language. She also remembers how they were beaten when they were caught speaking Shuswap, and eventually how she grew to hate her language, culture and herself for being Indian.

The experiences my grandmother lived through were the result of a broader assault waged on indigenous rights and culture across Canada and the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, her experience is strikingly similar to that of the late Lakota musician and activist, Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Westerman said in a 2008 interview with NPR that he would "never forget how all the mothers were crying" as they watched their children being taken away on a bus from the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1946, the same year my grandmother was taken.

Throughout Indian Country, there are many experiences like Westerman's, which Native Americans must patch together to create a vague picture of the nation's legacy of abuse against Native children and families. It's a legacy that the United States would prefer to forget. Canada, on the other hand, has acknowledged that it can no longer hide from its past, beginning a process that has put Native people like my grandmother on a path toward healing.

For decades, her ordeal and those of Native communities across Canada went unheard by the broader Canadian public. In 2008, however, the cries of survivors of the nation's Indian residential schools led Prime Minister Stephen Harper to issue an apology and led to the creation of a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission later that year.

On Tuesday, after six years of work, the commission released a summary of its findings, which describes the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide.

While the full six-volume report isn't due out until later this year, the summary contains both an unvarnished account of the system's cruelty and a set of recommendations to chart a path forward.

The report found that more than 6,000 of the roughly 150,000 students at the residential schools, or roughly 1 in 25, died. This is slightly higher than the 1 in 26 rate at which Canadians died in World War II. In the early years of the program, half of all children who attended the schools perished.

The commission will establish an archive at the University of Manitoba to house the experiences of 6,750 survivors who spoke with its members, my grandmother's story among them. This repository will serve as a permanent reminder of the human cost of the 139 schools that operated in Canada between 1883 and 1996.

The report's 94 recommendations include suggested changes to the oath of Canadian citizenship to recognize existing treaties with Native nations. Multiple recommendations advise the Canadian government to adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All aim to "redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation."

The report also raises questions about the experiences of some 100,000 Native children swept up south of the 49th parallel, at one of almost 500 Native American boarding schools in the U.S, the first of which opened in 1879.

The Native American boarding school system began in the United States in 1875, when Army Lt. Richard Henry Pratt shipped 72 Arapaho, Caddo, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa prisoners of war across the continent to St. Augustine, Florida. There, Pratt had the prisoners instructed in English and converted to Christianity.

Seeing his efforts at assimilation as largely successful, Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879. The doctrine espoused by its founder: "Kill the Indian and Save the Man."

Scholars such as Andrea Smith, David Wallace Adams and Brenda Child have researched the history of Native American boarding schools. Their work, which documents physical and sexual abuse, rampant disease, negligent healthcare and the system's destructive legacy suggests that the scandal of Native American boarding schools in the U.S. is on par with the residential school system in Canada.

In recent years, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has led calls for healing and reconciliation for survivors of the boarding school system. They have received support from numerous national, regional and tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Health Board, National Indian Education Association and the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

"Our goal is healing and reconciliation, and for healing and reconciliation, what we need is acknowledgement and the acceptance of responsibility by the federal government and the Christian denominations for the conception and implementation of this policy," said Donald Wharton, spokesman for the Native American Rights Fund, the legal representative of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

"What we are interested in is the resources to support the processes for healing of individual communities in Indian Country," he added.

However, the push to redress past grievances against Native Americans faces challenges unique to the U.S. judicial system. Unlike in Canada, suing the federal government is difficult because of statutes of limitations, Wharton explained, which severely limit the ability of former boarding-school students to sue.

For example, South Dakota legislators passed a statute in 2010 blocking anyone over 40 from suing an institution, such as the church, for childhood sexual abuse. This severely curtails the legal pressure former students of boarding schools can apply on the government.

Without the sort of inquiry that Canada has committed to -- and with few options for legal recourse -- broad understanding of the experiences of generations of Native American children who faced the systematic erasure of their culture (and worse) remains lacking, said Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council and a board member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Increasing public knowledge about the Native American boarding schools is an important first step, she added.

"Most U.S. citizens... are not aware of this," Carmen said. "Even the progressive human rights activists don't know that this has happened and that we are still addressing the traumatic legacy of this situation in Indian nations."

Scenes From Capitol Hill
Suggest a correction
243 Comments

CONVERSATIONS