What happened at the 21 Native American boarding schools in Minnesota? Unpacking a complex story – WCCO
Originally published May 20, 2022
RED WING, Minnesota (WCCO) – A trip to the basement of the Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing is a journey into a complex and complicated time in United States history. And right now, the traveling exhibit that the organization spent years trying to secure is once again a topic of national conversation.
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Entitled “Far From Home: Stories of American Indian Residential Schools”, the exhibit on loan from the Heard Museum in Arizona details the decades Native American children spent in federally-run boarding schools across the country through artifacts and first-person accounts.
“It’s definitely a conversation that needs to happen,” said collections curator Afton Esson. “It’s one of those subjects that is powerful and moving and having it right now is the perfect time to share this subject with the community.”
Perfect timing, perhaps, because for the first time ever, the United States is attempting to document in detail exactly what happened in schools scattered across the country. The Department of the Interior launched the effort in 2021, shortly after a closer look at similar schools in Canada revealed a massive number of unmarked graves in multiple locations.
A complicated story
Professor Brenda Child of the University of Minnesota has long been fascinated by the concept of Native American boarding schools. A citizen of Red Lake herself, Child says some of her earliest memories involve listening to her grandmother’s stories of her attendance at the Flandreau Indian School north of Sioux Falls.
“He was the first person who told me about boarding school – I could hear his voice,” Child said. “She told me that she had worked as a servant for the local white households, and that’s what the Indian girls did.”
Schools like Flandreau began opening across the country in the late 1800s, Child said. Initially, they were a home for children whose parents were prisoners of war in the ongoing battles between Native Americans and the colonizers of the time.
As the United States government worked to relocate Native Americans to reservation areas, schools exploded in numbers. At their peak, Child says one in three Indigenous children was sent to off-reserve boarding school. There, not only would they have no contact with their families, but they would also be forced to cut their hair, speak English, learn Christianity and evade tribal customs. It was an act of forced assimilation, Child said.
“The idea was that they wouldn’t really need a homeland anymore. They could enter American society and live like everyone else,” she said.
At the same time, Native Americans have had their lands taken away from them at a faster rate than ever before, Child said. This period of dispossession, evidenced in Minnesota by the Nelson Act of 1889, took more than 90 percent of native land from tribes across the state.
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“Boarding schools, in a sense, didn’t benefit American Indians. It was a twin policy that accompanied dispossession that left American Indians in the 1930s poorer than they had ever been before.
A deadly stay
Conditions in schools across the country ranged from cramped and overcrowded to neglect. This meant that the diseases of the time, tuberculosis and a flu epidemic, could ravage classroom dormitories at record speed. To date, it is not known how many students died in boarding schools during this time.
The second phase of the Department of the Interior’s Federal Residential Schools Initiative seeks to answer this question.
The child says that in addition to the illness, it is likely that the students were beaten by a system of corporal punishment.
“If you ran away from boarding school or were really rebellious in some way, you could go to jail on campus, and they had buildings where they sometimes locked students up as punishment.”
Understanding an impact
Professor Child says unlike many, his grandmother and great-grandfather were not punished for speaking their native language.
In fact, the children’s book, “Boarding school seasonsdetails hundreds of first-hand testimonials through letters and other recordings from students who not only attended the schools, but also recommended friends.
Still, she says the schools’ impact is apparent — and takes understanding the era of assimilation and dispossession of Native Americans to get the full context. Reparations, she says, should first focus on returning land to the tribes from whom it was taken.
“The idea of boarding schools at that time was to separate Indian children from their families and communities,” she said. “The idea was kind of to keep people away from Minnesota.”
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“Away From Home” will be on display at the Goodhue County Historical Society through May 25. This is a free exhibition.