Boarding Schools & Detention Centers

Healing from Policies of Genocide & Adultism

I first heard about Indian Boarding Schools as a college student, almost as a US historical footnote. It wasn’t until I watched the Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence that I started to understand how boarding schools operate as an international mechanism of genocide. And it is only in the last few years that I have come to understand the coming for the children as a persistent policy of genocide.

Before the adjective “Indian” was added to it, my image of “boarding schools” were fancy places where children of wealthy and powerful people were sent to live and learn how to be “successful” (read: manage and further accumulate their family’s wealth). Boarding schools were mysterious and exclusive places for the elite where I was supposed to want to be admitted. Even as a young, raised poor Chicana Boricua I couldn’t understand why parents would send their children away. My parents wouldn’t even let me have a sleep over at a friend’s house. And I found great comfort in knowing they wanted me close.

Indian families wanted to keep their children close too.

Indian Boarding Schools were also exclusive: with few exceptions,1 only children from indigenous communities were sent to them. Far from elite, though, the young boarders maintained the school’s facilities. Older young people were in charge of caring for younger ones and trained in industrial trades like sewing and shoemaking that could be exploited. Children as young as four years old were removed and were not returned to their communities until they were young adults so as to not “undo” the assimilation. Native children were stolen outright or were given no other option to access education unless their families “agreed” to send them away to these “schools.”

“By 1926, nearly 83 percent of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools across the country.”2

I was reminded recently: every Native person in the US and Canada alive today went to a boarding school, or their parent did, or their grandparent did. Some come from three generations of boarding school assimilation.
Native children were enrolled in boarding schools far from their land and in remote places. This not only discouraged running away (many of the children who attempted to leave this way died from exposure, lack of food, etc.) but also separated them from familiar climate, foods, animals, etc. that might have improved their chances of survival.

Genocide of indigenous people means disconnecting us from our land, our food sources, our languages, our ways of knowing: all our relations. “The end goal was to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture.”3 Once the connection is severed, “legal” genocide is complete and the land and its resources are made “available” for extraction and stealing.

If children stay connected, genocide is not possible.

The forced removal and trafficking of African people from their native land was a genocide policy. In the US, children of enslaved Africans were taken away from their families and sold as property. The forced removal of Native children from their land is also a genocide policy. Rather than viewing Native people as property, though, Native people were viewed by the US government as a “problem” to be solved: their mere existence disrupted the acquisition of land and its resources for exploitation, extraction and profit. Assimilation of indigenous children in the US was an economic proposition that had the pretext of “saving” the child from “savage” Indian ways. The cost of killing an Indian through warfare was estimated at 1 million “whereas it cost only $1,200 to school an Indian child for eight years.”4

It’s not a coincidence that the first Indian Residential School was a school first founded to assimilate free Blacks after the Civil War. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (later Hampton Institute) was founded by the son of missionaries in Hawai’i. The 72 Native Americans who Samuel Chapman Armstrong first enrolled in his institute were so-called “permanent prisoners” from Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. A year later, in 1879, Richard Pratt officially launched the Boarding School era and his “educational” experiment of cultural genocide with his notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted in 2007) states that indigenous people have a right to “freedom from genocide, forced assimilation or destructions of culture, forced relocation from land, right to integrity and security of the person, and right to belong to an indigenous community or nation.”5

From Scandinavia to New Zealand, from the Andes and the Caribbean to the USSR, on the African Continent and throughout Asia: indigenous children have been taken from their communities by so-called “friends” of tribal and native peoples in the name of cultural genocide—and for the purposes of resource acquisition. The xenophobic and racist assumptions underlying the boarding school industry—a duty to protect children from their own “backward” or “savage” cultures through assimilation to colonizer values and Christianity—were viewed as benevolent by supporters of this system and lauded as an improvement over physical genocide. In the US, boarding schools ran until 1978 while in Canada, the last Indian Residential School didn’t close until 1996. This system was never truly dismantled though. Instead it “shape-shifted” into the current-day Child Welfare System and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter system.

The children held in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Shelters or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Centers throughout the US are indigenous children.

These young people are descendants of Native people who have migrated and lived among; traded, intermarried, and, yes, fought with and alongside descendants of Native people on este lado (this side) of the imposed imperial border for hundreds and likely thousands of years. The heavily militarized US-Mexico border forces the separation of children from their families, disconnecting them from their relations. The US immigration policy towards Mexico and Northern Triangle Regions of Central America force either a physical genocide on land that no longer supports their original way of life or a cultural genocide: one that separates children from their families and begins a process of assimilation.

Separation and detention are money-making policies for private contractors who run non-profit shelters or for-profit detention centers for the US Federal Government. Between 2015 and 2019, one non-profit, Southwest Keys, made $955 million while the two largest for-profit contractors, “GEO Group and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America… earned a combined $985 million from contracts with ICE” in 2017 alone.6

The recent publicity of First Nations’ people finding mass graves, bodies of Native children buried unceremoniously on the grounds of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, has forced many who knew nothing or looked away to notice and pay attention. This genocide policy targeting indigenous children is not only in our past. This policy is alive and present and among us today.

Latest Updates/Resistance/Victories

  1. Hampton Institute in Virginia was the first Indian boarding school but it wasn’t called this because it was established for free Black Students.
  2. Vox, Reckoning with the theft of Native American children
  3. Northern Plains Reservation Aid, History and Culture: Boarding Schools
  4. United Nations, Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A comparative study (page 5)
  5. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Articles 7-10
  6. GQ, Private Companies Are Cashing In on ICE’s Detention Centers

More Resources

Centro Voices, Kill The Boricua, and Save the Man

Investing in Native Communities, History Through a Native Lens

In These Times, Below the Surface of ICE: The Corporations Profiting from Immigrant Detention