The American Indian Boarding School is Alive and Well

“The white man excused his presence here by saying that he had been guided by the will of his God; and in so saying absolved himself of all responsibility for his appearance in a land occupied by other men” — Luther Standing Bear

It must be acknowledged that the American Indian boarding schools were an atrocity, rife with cruelties of every kind and degree. However, it is a mistake not to consider them in the context of their broader purpose, which is to assimilate native American peoples into the same Western construct by which we are all held captive. For “nothing less than a complete assumption of a new identity was expected of the boarding school student;” an identity that conformed to the dominant Western paradigm. 

It is not only aboriginal Americans, but all subjugated groups — primitives, slaves, serfs, peasants, poor and working classes — who have been colonized. “The world has been subject to colonialism,” says Walter Echo-Hawk in A Seat At The Table, “its legacy is in Africa, in most of North and South America, Australia, and most of Asia.” In fact, the indigenous populations of Europe, those indigent settler-colonists vilified today as “colonizers”, were themselves disenfranchised by the memetic power of the Western construct, as “conversion to Catholicism spread over all of Europe so that by the Middle Ages entire communities of country people were dominated by the Catholic church, its institutions, schools, and political rulers.”

 Crucially, it must be understood that what the known world has been colonized by is not the Catholic church specifically or even Christianity more generally, although this meme and its attendant institutions are responsible for the bulk of its transmission. Rather, it is objectivity: the concept of a truth that exists independent of the whole. It is a concept utterly at odds with any theory of universality, and it gives rise to hierarchy and hence subjugation. It is Western objectivity that allows Machiavelli’s prince to be “unique in his principality and [occupy] a position of externality and transcendence.” By the time Christopher Columbus sets sail, it has become religious canon and justification for imperial colonization.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, settlers of the United States, along with those of Israel and South Africa, believed their enterprise to be founded upon a holy covenant, in which “the faithful citizens come together of their own free will and pledge to each other and to their god to form and support a godly society, and their god in turn vouchsafes them prosperity in a promised land.” Unfortunately for the native Americans that said covenant uprooted, this “promised” land was already occupied by other peoples. That their culture should be systematically displaced along with them was inherent to the process.

Of critical importance to the fate of native Americans was the development of capitalism and the state, which arise concurrently and are self-reinforcing. Abstractions in their own right, objectivity is embodied in both capitalism and the state, which themselves become memetic forces wielding power in the material world. A critical interpretation of Hechter and Brustein finds capitalism predicated upon private land tenure and the modern state antithetical to subsistence and petty commodity modes of production. This, in conjunction with an understanding that ceremony is the vehicle for transmitting cultural knowledge through time, explains why “educational and other assimilation policies on the part of government agencies were designed to change or destroy the sacred teachings and practices of The People.”

Prevailing opinion is that “the common cause of all federal government policy was to protect the economic interest of the … colonists who came from Europe to this continent.” This is, however, an oversimplification that fails to grasp that the “colonists” were themselves instruments of the Western memetic construct. Rather, it was the pursuit of wealth and status by elites who believed they had transcended nature which resulted in “national policy that emphasized the ideal of a homogenous cohesive nation, unified within a single language and culture,” the goal of which “was the full-scale “civilization” and incorporation of Native people into Euro-American society.” Desire for this pervasive homogeneity “left no room for indigenous leadership, culture, or sovereignty,” not out of any concern for the American Indian per se, but because they supported “indigenous traditions of communally held land.” Displacement from the means of production, particularly that of subsistence modes, is paramount in creating the “docile working class” elites need to confirm their mistaken assumption of objective superiority.

If “communal land ownership was the first obstacle to assimilation,” then the reservation system did little to address it. In fact, it further exacerbated the problem, for it gave material support to such spiritual revivals as the Ghost Dance, which not only took sustenance from the land but encouraged indigneous peoples to reclaim it. The Dawes Act further undermined their ability to avail themselves of the means of production, but for American Indians to be properly assimilated, the memetic logic went, the very transmission lines of their culture — language and ceremony — would have to be cut. 

As Beck and Walters point out, “both the attitudes brought to this continent by the colonizers and the economic needs of capitalism helped to mold government policy with regard to the education of Native American children and youth.” If assimilation was the government’s strategy, its tactic, then, was the boarding school.

Generations of    Indian youth were conscribed, either overtly or covertly, to residential schools run by the U.S. government, for the expressed purpose of obliterating traditional cultural and spiritual practices and the languages that maintained them. That these schools were fraught with abuse and horribly mismanaged is well documented. What is less so is how little these schools differ from public educational institutions more broadly in terms of their intent.

At the Indian boarding schools, “boys and girls are under military organization and it seems to be the best way of handling the large groups of students.” This was not by chance, or due even to the fact that the first Indian boarding schools were established by former U.S. military officers. It was, in reality, the extension of a more general program that American educators had for half a century been importing from Prussia.

Following their defeat in 1806 at the hands of Napoleon, the Prussians set about creating a system of “forced adolescence” for the purpose of domesticating their citizens. According to Tyson Yunkaporta:

The system they invented in the early nineteenth century to administer this change was public education: the radical innovation of universal primary schooling, followed by streaming into trade, professional, and leadership education. It was all arbitrated by a rigorous examination system (on top of the usual considerations of money and class). The vast majority  of Prussian students (over 90 percent) attended the Volksschule, where they learned a simple version of history, religion, manners, and obediences and were drilled endlessly in basic literacy and numeracy. Discipline was paramount; boredom was weaponized and deployed to lobotomize the population.

Although the Indian residential school aspired, at least in principle, toward that general goal of public education — the creation of a workforce to serve the national economy — its real purpose was much more specific. Any technical instruction at the Indian residential school was performed in a perfunctory manner, more to ensure sustainability of the school itself through its students’ labor than to prepare them for the future. Its true aim was pretermission rather than indoctrination. Strip them of their progeny, the founders of the boarding schools knew and, in a generation or two, the Indians’ way of life shall become, even among Indians, a myth of the white man.

What should raise the most concern in relating this history is not the injustice perpetrated upon the American Indian. That injustice, as horrific as it truly was, has been perpetrated on untold millions in every corner of the globe, and is now a foregone conclusion. What should concern us most, if our concern is anything more than mere virtue signaling, is that it continues today with our complicit approval.

The spiritual life of the native American was anchored in place, but more so in responsibility. That responsibility, to husband the “wellbeing of the world” through ceremony and prayer, was stripped from them through dispossession of the means of production, a fate that all humanity, save a fortunate few, now also suffers. It was, I have attempted to demonstrate, not a malicious act, taken in toto, but the unavoidable consequence of an objective worldview that we as a species have regrettably internalized.

“The first shock of colonization has never completely disappeared,” Beck and Walters explain, “and the deeper sadness at witnessing the destruction of a People and the land is still with us.”

 It is a shock that will hopefully lead us to transcend our false transcendence and return once again to our place within, rather without, the cosmos.