Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Painful Remembrance

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Painful Remembrance

Article excerpt

Dr. Eulynda J. Toledo is working to bring attention to the "intergenerational trauma" of the Native American boarding school era.

Many in Indian country have expressed that the trauma from the boarding school experience continues to terrorize the hearts of American Indians. Although much has been written about this history that looms so large in the North American indigenous experience, it remains an obscure topic in mainstream America.

Dr. Eulynda J. Toledo, a member of the Diné tribe and project director of a grant from the National Institute for Disability Research and Rehabilitation, is working to bring attention to the "intergenerational trauma" of the boarding school era through the recentiy founded Boarding School Healing Project. Toledo and her colleagues maintain that many of the social ills plaguing current generations of American Indians, including sexual abuse, child abuse, violence towards women and substance abuse can be traced to the generations of abuse experienced at Indian boarding schools. Toledo describes intergenerational trauma as post-traumatic stress disorder that has been passed down through generations.

Beginning with President Ulysses Grant's "Peace Policy" of 1869, thousands of American Indian children were forced into government and religious boarding schools away from their families and land or forced to attend Christian day schools located on reservations. The "Peace Policy" was embraced as a more economical solution to the "Indian Problem" of the day than costly military campaigns against the tribes to gain control of their lands.

On Oct 6, 1879, Captain Richard H. Pratt, a veteran of the Indian wars, opened the first federal Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pa. His motto at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was to "kill the Indian, and save the man." The philosophy of forced acculturation that stripped Indians of their culture, language and religion was quickly embraced by the United States government, which appropriated funds to support more than 400 such church-run schools and several Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Students were trained to become contributing members of American society by receiving training for low-skilled jobs.

Carlisle was modeled on a prison school Pratt had created earlier for Indian prisoners of war in Florida and was run with military precision. Pratt's punitive philosophy of rigid order became the desired model for other Indian boarding schools. Children as young as five years old were taken from their families and subjected to a life of harsh discipline in which punishment was swiftly meted out for offenses such as displaying any Indian tendencies. Their mouths were scrubbed out with lye soap for uttering any words in their native language.

The children were forbidden to visit their parents, forced into hard labor and subjected to a host of abuses, including physical and sexual abuse by school officials, employees and peers, according to former students. Since the schools usually functioned with limited funds, children frequently died from starvation or other preventable diseases.

The system continued well into the 20th century. Students who attended such institutions during the 1970s and '80s recall severe beatings and sexual abuse during their years at the schools.

Toledo, an instructor in early childhood and Native American women courses at Navajo Technical College, and her colleagues with the Boarding School Healing Project are working to create quantitative links between the current epidemic rates of child abuse, domestic abuse and even drug and alcohol abuse in Indian communities and the violent legacy of boarding schools.

A Project Based on Healing

Toledo is careful to take a gende approach in her research among the Diné people about their boarding school experiences. She ensures participants that a Diné counselor will be on hand if any discussion triggers painful emotions. …

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