It’s hard to understate the tragedy of the Native American “boarding schools”. In the mid 1800’s, the racist, Christian supremacist government of the United States at the time aimed to destroy Native American culture by taking a generation of children, stripping them of their culture, and thus killing Native American culture. This plan was devastating, leaving Native culture severely impacted (more on that below).
These “schools” were of course compulsory by law, so it’s no surprise that many who preserved fragments of Native culture had somehow escaped, often by being hidden by their parents, etc. At the schools, not only was speaking their language prohibited (on fear of a beating, or worse), but any aspect of their culture and spirituality were also prohibited. Parental visitation was generally not allowed, and many children were not allowed to come home in the summer. Native spirituality was banned (in fact, Native American Spirituality was literally illegal until 1978 – well within the lifetimes of many of us), and of course the children abducted and culturally robbed were forced to become Christian.
It’s unsurprising, then, to discover that Hitler himself got a lot of his ideas for cultural extermination of Jews from the example of our Native American cultural extermination & boarding schools, and our American boarding schools were the original “Final Solution”. Faced with all of that, regardless of the details of our own specific spiritual practices, our commitment to human rights moves us to acknowledge reality and try to help the healing process. An important part of the healing process is understanding what happened. This little blog post is of course just a tiny sliver of the information on this history, so there is a lot out there for each of us to learn.
For one thing, there were a lot of these boarding schools. American history classes sometimes mention the infamous Carlisle school, but there were dozens in the United States and even more in Canada. Check out these maps – many of us had no idea how widespread this policy was. Also, this was not all that long ago. Many of these children who survived the boarding schools are still alive, and new discoveries are still being made today. For instance, just this week, the bodies of 215 children who never came home were found at the Kaloops Native American boarding school. Similarly, the ongoing work at the Michigan Indian Industrial boarding school has identified hundreds of children who also died at that school as well.
Faced with this history, there are many things we can do. Just a bare minimum includes standing up for accurate history, especially in our schools. Another important part is to vote with Native interests in mind, which today is nearly always voting for whoever has the best chance to win against the running Republican (due to many issues, such as voting access, help for disadvantaged communities, local Native disputes, climate change, and more). As Pagans, our connection to our land is incomplete without awareness of the stolen nature of this land. One way to help remember this is to include a land acknowledgment in your rituals and at other times as well. For instance, my house, most of my rituals, and where I am now as I write this is on Anishinaabe land, taken in 1807 in the Treaty of Detroit. Donating to and paying for membership in Native organizations (depending on the organization’s membership requirements) also helps, and is especially useful for knowing when events are happening (most also have a facebook group). Buying Native is helpful too (be sure to check if it’s actually Native made and not someone with no tribal/Native connection making Native looking things to make money).
One small part of the ways to support Native Americans can be attending memorials to the boarding school tragedy. These are often far flung and it’s easy to be unaware of each of them – but this year, at least, the one which I’ve been attending is online and open to everyone! It’s this coming Friday, June 4th – don’t miss it! Here is the link to the live video:
(If that doesn’t work, here is the Saginaw Chippewa News page which also links to it.)
When you are involved and connected, additional opportunities to help and to learn come up regularly. As alluded to above, one terrible consequence of the boarding schools was the decimation of the Native languages. Among them, the Anishinaabe (incl. Ojibwe) language has survived better than some, partly due to the large number of pre-contact speakers, but still has very few speakers (often those who avoided the boarding schools by being hidden) and is struggling to survive. My own learning (of this, the language of some of my Ancestors) has been limited to common words, especially animals, plants, weather and such. The grammar and speech is a much larger task (a good description of why, using the associated Potawatomi language, is discussed in the book Braiding Sweetgrass).
Like the HHR ceremony above, the pandemic has widened our opportunities to support the language as well. Even knowing only limited Anishinaabe vocabulary (or whatever is the Native language for your location) helps both raise awareness as well as honor those who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans. Here is an example – an Anishinaabe language conference, with unlimited online openings! It’s June 11-12. You can register here.
Updated to add:
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.