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Residential Boarding Schools in Canada and the United States

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Residential boarding schools that housed Indigenous children in the United States and Canada were facilities used in efforts to further erase Indigenous culture and were themselves an overt act of colonial violence. It is important that we see this history for what it truly is: acts of genocide committed by colonizers.

(Image from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Genocide is more than just mass killing (although the graves being discovered in Canada suggest the possibility that mass killing occurred). Genocide is also the erasure of culture through family separation, especially children from parents, in an effort to make sure that a particular culture is dismantled.*

The history of this cultural genocide on both sides of the border stretches from the mid 19th century when White settlers desired more access to land inhabited by Native peoples. Instead of viewing Native cultures with respect, they were viewed as a problem to be solved with violence. In the United States, there had just been a costly civil war, so the government lacked a budget to wage another war. The solution they came up with was to separate families from their children, sometimes forcibly, sometimes through coercion or manipulation. Once separated, they could be culturally eradicated and turned into a low-rung labor force as farmers or domestic servants to further profit the colonizers**.

The residential boarding schools were a nightmarish hell that inflicted generational trauma on those that survived. Physical and sexual abuse was prevalent. The schools lacked funding, so the facilities were poor, overcrowded (which resulted in the spread of disease), and lacked adequate food. There was no oversight to prevent or handle reports of abuse. The children were stripped of their names, families, culture, and languages, with strict punishments for speaking in their native tongues***.

All this to children. Children as young as four.

In Canada, there are better records regarding residential boarding schools. There were 139 residential schools in operation, from the 1970s to 1996. During that time, it is estimated that 150,000 children were housed in those schools. In the United States, no formal records were kept but it is estimated that the number of residential schools was twice as that of Canada.****

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Collective has been researching and creating a list of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and currently has record of 367 schools, including Federal, Tribal, and Mission schools. 73 of these schools remain open today, 15 of which are still operating as boarding schools. To see the list or to report a school not currently on their list, visit their page here.

The level of abuse inflicted in these schools on children was so brutal, so inhumane that we cannot discuss it without a firm trigger warning. These children were beaten, sometimes naked, and sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. Penalties for speaking their native language included stabbing their tongues with needles. They were sexually assaulted, and when pregnancies resulted from their abuse, they were forced to have their pregnancies terminated. Communications from their families were withheld.

While the work of reconciliation has started in Canada, little has been done to acknowledge or heal the legacy of Indian Boarding Schools in the United States. Denise Lajimodiere, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at North Dakota State University, and an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Belcourt, North Dakota, wrote an article a few years ago and stated: "There has been scant recognition of the boarding school era by the U.S federal government and church denominations that initiated and carried out the schools’ policies. Neither has acknowledged, as the Canadian government did for its own boarding school program in 2008, that those policies’ purpose was cultural genocide or accepted responsibility for their effects."

We have so much work to do, to not only acknowledge but also work towards reparations and healing for the Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States.

As always, the best way to understand history is to listen to the voices of those that experienced it. Facts--names, dates, numbers--are just that until we listen and bear witness to those who survived. We strongly encourage you to take some time and listen to their stories. The Legacy of Hope Foundation has collected firsthand accounts in an effort to spread education, awareness, and healing for Indigenous tribes. You can watch and listen here.

If you feel inclined to take action beyond learning this difficult but essential history, and we hope you do, we encourage donations to organizations assisting survivors and their families. Generational trauma is real, and there are some wonderful organizations providing healing and support.

One is the Indian Residential School Survivors Society. You can learn more about them and donate here.

Another is the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. You can learn more about their mission, get involved, and make donations here.

Notes and Further Reading:

Other resources:

National Center for Truth and Reconciliation:

Course on Indigenous Canada:

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People:

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