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Facing up to hard truths about Native Amercian boarding schools

Peter Tregillus

The national and global spotlight shines briefly on our region through a New York Times article published July 19, dateline Durango, Colorado: “Lost Lives, Lost Culture: The Forgotten History of Indigenous Boarding Schools.”

It includes some incredibly brave and personal stories by members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation and others. What they have in common is the experience of being brutally severed from their families and social settings at an early, vulnerable age.

Native American boarding schools carried out a viciously cruel and brutal process to smash their identities and hijack their development as people. To read these words of our neighbors makes my heart sick. The cruelty and the damage were intentional, with seizure of land and extraction of wealth as the aim.

Personally, I find this history shameful and I think people should know about it. But it’s hard to miss that it also triggers a throbbing civic upset among those who advocate an old time, traditional, “heroic” U.S. history narrative. By that, I mean the narrative that glosses or skips over slavery, theft of land, murder and genocide.

And we now are reminded in The New York Times (and locally by Durango Magazine, November 2019) that our forebears then kicked Native American people when they were down by subjecting their children to starvation, humiliation, violence and trauma.

The treatment inflicted on Native American children by government and church officials was not new. The same process was inflicted on African enslaved people beginning in North America in the 1600s. This was described by Orlando Patterson, an Afro-Caribbean professor at Harvard, in a book called “Slavery and Social Death, a Comparative Study (1982).”

The boarding schools followed the strategy inflicted on slaves described by Patterson: 1) uproot the person (or child), often violently, from his milieu; 2) eliminate individual identity through humiliation and cultural violation; 3) rename the person; and 4) orient the child or the enslaved person toward the “whims and mercy of the master.” Per Patterson, such “treatment” is designed to separate the person from the larger society, bringing about what Patterson calls “social death.”

Should we look at this? Investigate it? Discuss it? Teach it? There’s a moral panic abroad in our pandemic days that says “No,” that it’s divisive, makes kids feel bad about themselves, fails to uplift the “noble” side of our history (I’ll let someone else weigh in on what is truly noble) and implies that individual white people carry guilt for past atrocities of slavery and genocide. This is a gross misrepresentation of those of us who say, “Teach it!”

Personally, if it were about ancestral guilt, I’d be an emotional basket case. Sir John Hawkins, my direct ancestor, invented the triangular slave trade.

But it’s not about guilt. It’s about recognition of past wrongs. It’s about gaining an understanding of how institutions, laws and regulations, and social norms either lead us to look clearly at something so nakedly awful as Native American boarding schools, to grasp it and come to terms with the hard truth of the facts, or to turn away and allow the horror of the atrocity to fester.

There are hardened hearts who will counsel that it is better to just this pass so that people will forget it. My trust lies in young people, especially teens here in pandemic time, who spot absurdities and learn on their own how to sort things out. As my old mentor and critic Reid Ross used to say, “Sometimes you just gotta look the naked ass of reality in the face.”

Peter Tregillus is a fourth-generation resident on the ancestral lands of the Nuchu (Ute), Apache, Pueblo, Hopi, Zuni and Diné nations. He retired after 32 years working in job training, housing, transit and other public service fields in Southwest Colorado.

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