“Physical beatings were a matter of course. Food deprivation occurred almost all the time. People ask me, ‘What was your overall feeling of this place?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was hunger,' ” said Doug George, whose Akwasasne Mohawk name is Kanentiio.
Kanentiio, whose name means “handsome pine,” describes life at an Indian boarding school, also known as a residential school, in the 1960s.
The first such facility, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was founded in the 1870s by military Capt. Richard Pratt. It was a way to assimilate Native American children into “white” society and, in Pratt's words, “kill the Indian to save the man.”
“The intent was to extinguish us as Aboriginal people and destroy whatever sense of self-worth we had, and I can say that they succeeded to a large degree,” Kanentiio said. “They killed our spirit. They killed us.”
Many students sent to these schools went missing. Last month, 215 children’s remains were discovered in British Columbia at one of nearly 500 boarding schools in Canada and the U.S.
The discovery has sparked renewed calls for justice from Indigenous communities and for further investigations -- forensic and archeological -- into more residential schools.
“It’s high time that this American country recognizes the great value and resource in its indigenous populations and celebrates and promotes and supports,” said Michael Galban, curator at the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site.
Last year, Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced a bill that would create a Truth and Healing Commission, which would investigate and document past injustices of what they call the federal government's cultural genocide. So far, the bill has not progressed in any fashion.
Undoing this magnitude of injustice would take multiple long-term solutions, Galban said, starting with policy changes.
“It would involve language restoration,” he said. “It would involve environmental restorations. It would involve, in some cases, restoring people to their original homelands.”
It would also mean recording oral histories of survivors’ experiences.
“Every day, we’re losing the stories from the survivors as they age out and pass away,” he said. “Hopefully they’re sharing their stories with their families.”
Galban’s grandmother, Evelyn Evans Galban, was a residential school survivor.
In the 1920s, she was taken from her home in California and sent to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada, where Galban said she experienced abuse.
“The idea was that you could strip these Indian children of their culture and their ideologies and create a new cheap labor class that certain areas of the country could exploit,” Galban said.
During the school year, she was taught how to fold laundry, set tables and make beds, he said. During school breaks, she couldn’t go home.
“During the summers, these schools would hire out the students under the guise that they would be learning how to live amongst the whites,” Galban said. “But really, they were being farmed out to hotels and resorts to be their domestic labor.”
She attempted to run away multiple times. On one occasion, she was caught “in the middle of the winter. They took away her shoes and basically whipped her back to school with no shoes on,” Galban said.
Finally, with the help of a cousin, she managed to run away to Montana, Galban said.
Indian boarding schools were compulsory at the time. It would be another 12 years before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 would give Native American parents the legal right to refuse their children’s placement in these kinds of schools off reservations.
Until then, Native leadership and families were essentially held hostage by the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada.
“If there was ever, whether it be by leadership or families, any action to stop or take their children (back), they were often persecuted and arrested and faced problems for that as well,” said Mohawk Grandchief Abram Benedict.
In 1966, Kanentiio was 11 years old when police and social services took him from the St. Regis Mohawk Reserve near Ottawa, Canada, and sent him nearly 350 miles west to the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario.
He’s now one of about 40 remaining Mohawk survivors.
At the school, Kanentiio said the abuse came not just from staff, but also from older students who he said were encouraged to discipline the younger students.
After a few years, he managed to escape. First by way of expulsion: He and his classmates were non-compliant, troublemakers.
“Our rude behavior was our survival,” Kanentiio said. “We couldn’t just simply be compliant. We had to fight, physically if necessary, to stop these things from happening.”
Still, when he was expelled, he wasn’t sent back to the reservation. He was put into foster care and bounced around from one home to the next until he eventually managed to run away back home, he said.
More than 50 years later, Kanentiio wishes he could confront those personally responsible for the brutal treatment, abuse, and for ripping families apart.
“It’s a terrible thing to walk around believing that you’re not truly a human being or a complete human being,” he said. “Something deep and wonderful has been lost. And that’s the terror of this thing.”