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Still Buried: How Educational Institutions Today Embrace the Legacy of American Indian Boarding Schools

July 12, 2022 Brittany Anderson American Indian Science & Engineering Society

Written with feet planted on the ancestral lands of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyate (People of Seven Council Fires,
known to some as the Dakota Nation). Learn more about traditional territories, NDN Collective Land BackMovement, and the origins of Mni Sóta Makoc̣e through the Bdote Memory Map.

The newsreels lately have me spinning, and I’m sure many of you find yourselves feeling the same. We celebrate the appointment of our first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, as many of us so affectionately call her, Auntie Deb . We applaud the administration for opening the first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Taskforce Office (and in my own backyard, no less). And yet, the news stings with the pain of another mass shooting and again, we find ourselves grieving the lives lost and futures stolen from inside of elementary schools.

While these tragedies continue to shock and awe the nation, schools have never been a safe space for Indigenous peoples in the US and Canada. Children were taken from our families forcibly and placed in schools, many run by religious institutions, under the guise of “education.” Early examples of our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR - the inclusive form of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement) were truly school children. Aunties and uncles share stories of how when the census man came around, families would hide their youngsters - an attempt to savor their last years of childhood innocence as Indian children, while others were eager to send their littles away as a survival tactic. Regardless of parental intent, these “educational” institutions stripped them of their Indigenous identities - cutting their hair, giving them biblical names, assimilating and colonizing generations.

Some physical sites have been preserved as boarding schools, others have been destroyed and the remainder are used to “educate.” One such institution sits among the rolling hills and fields of the Minnesota prairie in a town of approximately 5,000. What is now the University of Minnesota - Morris originated in the late 19th century as the Sisters of Mercy Indian Boarding School. The school closed in 1909 and the property was transferred to the state with the stipulation that American Indian students “shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition.”

Morris is the only institution in the University of Minnesota system that grants full tuition for “a direct descendant of a tribally verified member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, Alaskan Native Village, or Canadian First Nation..” While the intention of “honoring” the legacy of the land may have been made in good faith, its impact maintains an imbalance of power, with the institution having the upperhand. Students, to this day, sleep in dorms across the street from buried, stolen children in exchange for free tuition.

The findings of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report highlight the tactics and outcomes of the Indian Boarding School Systems. Below are two of the many ways current institutions and educators employ the systemic “identity-alteration methodologies” outlined in the report.

Forcing Native American children to use English names
I grew up with a name that was racially ambiguous and often I was assumed to be white. On my reservation, most family names have either French or German origins. For example, my family is made of Divers, Houles, Mullens, and Murrays. When I began to meet others from Indian Country, I learned beautiful given and family names - ones that pop culture can only hope to imitate. With a name like Brittany Anderson, I often longed for an “Indian name,” something to allow my holistic self to shine as an Anishinaabe woman. I would find myself shocked that people would ever find themselves wishing they had a name like mine - something that would allow them to blend in.

Working in higher education, it wasn’t uncommon practice for staff to ask students with “difficult names” to ask if the student “went by anything else” or if they could call them something “easier” for their Western tongues to pronounce. Suddenly, Rahel became a much more palatable “Rachel,” Ohene transformed into Oscar. These practices of Indigenous renaming actively perpetuate erasure, signaling that an Indigenous identity must be checked at the door, and replaced with one comfortable to the dominant society.

It is important to our culture, our history, our ancestors and our futures to normalize traditional names, non-English names. By continuing to “take the easy way out” so-to-speak, we are embracing the practice of white supremacy, making it common to prefer English names. These practices have implications. Countless studies have shown that using a non-English name on a resume has a negative impact when it comes to hiring practices and wage determinations. This directly ties to the practice
employed by the Indian Boarding School system.

Barring cultural and religious practices as well as the use of Native languages
Many institutions today require a second language as a part of their general education or liberal arts curriculum - and with good reason. However, many institutions will not waive that requirement for students who are first language speakers of their mother tongue. As of 2022, only 21 of over 7,000 higher education institutions offer Native American Languages, Literatures and Linguistics - less than 1% of all colleges and universities. By allowing Indigenous students to take Indigenous languages and ensure their transferability.

Year after year, a story replays in our communities; a headline reads “Students Demand Right to Wear Native Regalia at Graduation” or “Her Tribal Regalia was Banned at Graduation.” These stories are always the same - a student demanded to exercise the right to carry or wear their indigenous regalia to graduation. As a consequence, the Native student is then barred from participating in commencement, subjected to fines or refused their diploma. Many high schools and colleges follow the American Council on Education’s Academic Regalia guide, adapted from the 1935 Intercollegiate Registry of Academic Costume, including the University of North Dakota (UND).

UND’s Acceptable Academic Regalia for Commencement Ceremonies provides exceptions to the Academic Regalia guide for “official members of religious orders.” In contrast, “individuals seeking recognition of culturally-based adornments in the program should consult with the Office of Ceremonies and University Events at least 30 days prior to commencement, who will consult with a network of campus and off-campus resources.” While one wouldn’t bat an eye if a hijab or a yarmulke were present at a commencement ceremony, would Native regalia see the same respect? Both are religious adornments, but often beadwork and feathers would be misunderstood as “cultural” rather than religious.

 

These two points alone honor the legacy of boarding schools in that Indigenous students are subject to colonial rule in pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of (happiness) education. Consistently, Native students receive messaging that college is the only way out of the poverty that erodes our communities. But how do we, as practitioners, perpetuate this legacy in our own practices? How do Indigenous families and communities give their youth, their futures, to our institutions in good faith that we will honor and respect them in all that they are?

Brittany Anderson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe, she/her/kwe), a descendant of the boarding school project, attended the University of Minnesota Morris. She holds a Masters of Education in Youth Development & Leadership from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Brittany currently is the Senior Program Officer for Career Support & Research at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and serves as the Region IV-E Representative for the IPKC.

References

Ahern, W. (1984). Indian Education and Bureaucracy: The School at Morris, 1887-1909. Minnesota History
(49)3, 82-98.

Bureau of Indian Affairs. (2022). Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.
https://www.bia.gov/sites/default/files/dup/inline-files/bsi_investigative_report_may_2022_508.pdf

Child, B. J. (1998). Boarding school seasons: American Indian families, 1900-1940. U of Nebraska Press.

Child, B. J. (2018). The boarding school as metaphor. Journal of American Indian Education, 57(1), 37-57.

Colville Tribal Museum. (2022). Education. Coulee Dam, WA.

Ferry, Frederick C. “An Academic Costume Code”. The Educational Record (July 1935); reprint Washington,
DC: American Council on Education, 1935.

University of Minnesota. (n.d.). American Indian Boarding Schools in Morris. About University of Minnesota
Morris. https://morris.umn.edu/morris-boarding-schools

University of Minnesota. (n.d.). Financial Aid for American Indian Students. Native American Students at
Morris. https://morris.umn.edu/native-american-students-morris/financial-aid-american-indian-students

University of Minnesota. (n.d.). Native American Promise Tuition Program. University of Minnesota System.
https://system.umn.edu/native-american-promise-tuition-program

University of North Dakota. (2021). Acceptable Academic Regalia for Commencement Ceremonies.
https://und.edu/academics/commencement/_files/docs/2021.academic.regalia.policy.pdf