The Indian Boarding School Movement: Christian Complicity, part 1

Carlisle_pupils

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”: A Few Opening Remarks

Perhaps you have seen the movie, The Education of Little Tree, a film released in the 1970s based on a novel by a white-political activist, and promoted as a true autobiographical account of the author’s life. Although the story turned out to be fiction, sadly the realities of the Indian boarding schools represented in the story were not.

For the next couple of posts, we will focus on a critical piece of Native American/First Nations history that most people simply don’t know about – the Indian boarding school era. It was a social experiment  of the U.S. government and Canada designed to eliminate the Indian culture, understood then and now as cultural genocide. The driving doctrine for the U.S. was “Kill the Indian, save the man” — a term coined by Gen. Richard Pratt. That philosophy was to educate the Native child to the end that they would forsake their Indian ways and be productive members of Christian American society. The means by which that was carried out will be left to Native voices to tell you (see video below).

To say the least, it is a very painful part of their past, and as we shall see, their present reality. But this long ugly era cannot simply be relegated to NA/FN history. It is very much a part of U.S. and Canadian history. And sadly, as we shall see, it is also part of church history. This is not common knowledge to many people, so much of what will follow with be a shock to many people. There was complicity by the churches. But as Christians we should never be afraid to take a hard look at ourselves, then and now, and learn from our mistakes that Jesus may be better represented among the nations.

The past is the past, right?

So why bring all this up now? Isn’t that all in the past? What does any of this have to do with Christian missions to Native America today?  My purpose is not to stir up anger, but to give perspective. To many Native Americans, Christianity represents a destroyer of a people at every level of their existence. Because of that, it hinders missions today. Another thing that I believe hinders missionary efforts is an apathy on our end. After all that bad history, do we really believe that Native America has great value and potential for the Kingdom? Are the fields still white for harvest?

Taking a hard look

It is no secret that there are many hard issues facing Native Americans. It is no secret that suicide rates rank highest among Native Americans, twice the national average, more than any other ethnic group. It is no secret that alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, violence, sexual assault, high school drop out rates, and teen pregnancies are higher in Indian Country than anywhere else in North America. None of these things is peculiar to Native Americans, but what is alarming is that all these things rank highest among one segment of society on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border.

So what is the problem?

The simple biblical answer to the question is sin. But we all have that problem (Rom 3:23). So that does not really answer the question concerning Native America in particular. Typical answers to the question are, “They are stuck in the past while refusing to move on.”  Or “That is what happens when you give people government handouts. They don’t want to work, so they sit around getting drunk all day.” Or the less political, more scientific answer, “There is something about Indian DNA that makes them prone to alcoholism.” And the list could go on. Each of those simplistic answers is fraught with assumptions stemming from an abundance of myth, lack of facts, devoid of context, and full of condescension.

Actually there is a problem in the question itself, what is the problem, as if there were only one problem to be solved that would be the key to end all problems. Again, let me affirm that the only answer to the world’s problems is Jesus. That is the only thingBoys praying I can say with absolute confidence.

The rest I submit to you is only part of a deeper problem that has led to so much collateral damage, which NA/FN people suffer under today. How much damage? Only the Lord knows the scope and magnitude, but one thing I can be confident in is that most (if not all) non-Native people I have spoken to have no idea about the reality and ramifications of the government sponsored, mostly Christian-run, Indian boarding movement.

In Their Own Words…

When informing people of Native American/First Nations issues, I prefer to use their sources, their voices, their own words. The first video clip, Truth & Reconciliation: Stories from Residential School Survivors, is one of many that shows the life of First Nations people in Canada at the residential (boarding) school. It is important to know that Canada has recognized her grievous sin imposed on First Nations people.

The next video clip, Unseen Tears: The Native American Boarding School Experience in Western New York, part 1, tells identical stories in the U.S. If you would like to see the following parts, they play sequentially once part one concludes.

What’s next?

There are so many more videos that could have been selected, but these should give you a better understanding to Native American/First Nations peoples. I hope this gives Christians perspective. I hope we realize that their history did not end in some Indian War out on the plains during the 1800’s as most public school text books would have us believe. They have remained – and survived – yet the ramifications of abuse and neglect on generations of hundreds of thousands of people also remain. Let’s show them the real Jesus whose arm is not too short to save and is willing to heal their wounds by His stripes (Isa 53:5).

You can read part 2 here.

Patrick Lennox is a MTW missionary to Native America. Currently he and his wife, Regina, are preparing to serve at the Mokahum Ministry Center located in Cass Lake, MN.

 

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