Here’s How to Honor Native Americans – Mother Jones
November is my annual season of ambivalence. While I love fall, its poignant air of loss and promise of renewal, it has the bittersweet distinction of also being Native American History Month.
Every year for as long as I can remember, mainstream press editors, as well as church and school groups, have asked me to regale their audiences with Native American history. Inevitably, these claims seek to present Indigenous peoples as inhabitants of a distant past, as occupants of an imaginary world that has almost nothing to do with our lived experiences.
This annual exercise has taken on a tiresome resemblance: it is the month when the Indians are explained to the whites. Generally, they tell me that they want to know more about Aboriginal people, our lives today, how to honor our culture and be allies. But almost always it means they want me to present generic versions of Indigenous dance, crafts and spirituality; to help them participate in ceremonies and drumming, identify their power animals, and become shamans. In short, they want to celebrate an Indian who has never been, the one who appeases their settler souls.
I often give in and offer a few words encouraging people to read relevant books and do some research on their own. Such presentations are far more concerned with white fragility than I would prefer. Still, what I say can be upsetting to them, like watching a 5-year-old’s face crumble as she says Santa isn’t real.
This year, the requests have been particularly abundant. Prompted by the discovery of hundreds of children’s graves in residential schools where Indigenous children were coerced by the governments of Canada and the United States, white people want me to describe these atrocities and my own family’s experience as than survivors. For reasons difficult for me to understand, this is a new story for white America. They are shocked, horrified and strangely hungry for ghastly detail.
Indigenous people, myself included, are shocked that it has taken so long for non-Indigenous people to acknowledge this dark story, the one we have been shouting about for decades, only to be met with deafening silence or denial.
My grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles, and many cousins are all residential school survivors. Theirs was run by the Catholic Church, but its curriculum and culture was modeled on federal schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which also inspired those in Canada where the bodies of children were first exhumed. in June.
After Canada passed the Indian Act in 1876, which authorized the government to regulate and administer the affairs of Indigenous peoples, Nicholas Flood Davin, MP, was tasked with finding a way to educate the country’s Indigenous peoples . Davin visited the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 and was impressed with how US Army Lt. Richard Pratt, the school’s founder, used education to force native assimilation.
Prior to founding Carlisle, Pratt ran a correctional school for Native Americans in Fort Marion, Florida, where he developed an educational style of systematically destroying Native culture, language, and family ties in an effort to absorb Native children into traditional America. Its motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” helped shape the regimented military style that defines most residential schools.
American boarding schools were often woefully underfunded. Deplorable conditions – poor food, clothing, housing – contributed to the spread of disease and sometimes death. According to the researchers, many schools did not keep accurate records of student deaths. Parents of those who died were often notified after the child’s burial, if they were notified at all; few could afford the travel costs to recover their children’s remains.
Unlike in Canada, where the 2008 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Act helped unlock church and government records, there is little definitive data on the number schools or children who attended or died in schools in the United States. Researchers estimate that more than twice as many Indian boarding schools operated in the United States as in Canada.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the only Indigenous person to serve at the Cabinet level, recently announced her agency’s creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative. As part of this initiative, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for collecting records from the boarding school program, with particular attention to deaths and burial sites. The initiative also includes obtaining documents from Christian denominations that operated schools.
Haaland’s initiative represents the first official effort to acknowledge the residential school era and recognize its lasting impact on Indigenous peoples. It is also the first concrete commitment by the US government to investigate and acknowledge the history of assimilationist policies.
“For more than a century, the Department was responsible for the operation or oversight of Indian boarding schools across the United States,” the initiative states. “While it can be difficult to learn about the trauma suffered during the days of boarding schools, it is impossible to understand its impacts on communities today without acknowledging this painful history.”
“Only by acknowledging the past can we work towards a future we are all proud to embrace.”
But for now, it’s pretty vague. There are no specific plans to carry out archaeological research at the boarding school sites, and no funding is earmarked. And, above all, the United States has never apologized for its boarding school policies.
The enormity of my the family’s trauma is just too deep to be reduced to the indignity of a benign synopsis offered to a gathering of blissfully ignorant and well-meaning, always well-meaning white people. Ultimately, these intentions remain firmly centered on a white world where white saviors lead the way to healing and reconciliation on terms that don’t look too deeply at their own guilt and the benefits associated with colonialism.
There is a childlike quality to fragility and white righteousness, even among the most awakened people, that almost fills me with pity. Until I remembered the power they wield and how, if they really wanted to, they could make a huge difference in the world.
For Native American History Month this year, I have a modest proposal. Help us bring out our dead.
A bill establishing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Residential Schools Policy in US law was again introduced in Congress this year. This would require investigating the history and actions of American boarding schools to address the intergenerational impact of the policy.
But rather than waiting for lawmakers to govern, churches, universities and communities that really want to be allies can support Indigenous efforts to locate boarding schools and cemeteries. Fully guided by Indigenous peoples, allies can pay for all costs associated with this work, whether it’s digging up the remains and bringing them home, building memorials, or holding ceremonies to honor the dead.
Allies can do this job without centering in any way. They can facilitate healing and reconciliation simply by being of service to their Indigenous neighbours. The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project – a collaboration between the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the Genoa Foundation and members of Nebraska tribes, including the descendants of those who were sent to this boarding school – is an excellent model. By combing through newspaper archives and school report cards, the project has identified more than 100 children who died at school and is working to locate their graves.
While not as entertaining as learning to be a shaman or reading acknowledgments of lands aloud in high enough tones, a nationwide effort to find all tombs in all schools would represent genuine reckoning. This is a Native American history month activity that I could support wholeheartedly and without hard feelings, an activity that could represent a real step forward.
Adapted in part from “We Shall Not Forget the Children” in Indian country todaywhere Mary Annette Pember is national correspondent.