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Guest Column: Boarding Schools Left Lifelong Mark on Native Americans

Last updated on 2013.06.30

The Rapid City Journal has made yet another questionable editorial choice. Weekly columnist Jim Kent submitted a column inspired by a conversation about The Thick Dark Fog, a documentary about the abuse and cultural oppression one Lakota man experienced in a federal Indian boarding school in post-World War II South Dakota. (See movie trailer at bottom of this post.) Kent wrote of this ugly part of our history and the lifelong damage our white European culture did to Native Americans with the boarding schools.

The Rapid City Journal editorial board rejected the column. According to Kent, the RCJ editors "noted that the boarding school issue — though painful — took place decades ago, questioned references to genocidal federal practices prior to the 19th century as well as their use at boarding schools, questioned references to Gen. Philip Sheridan, and stated that publishing the column 'would further divide Native Americans and whites without justification.'"

Jim Kent has given me permission to publish his column. I do so, with gratitude.

Jim Kent
Jim Kent

Boarding schools left mark for life
By Jim Kent

For most people, memories of their first days of school are often blurred images kept alive by stories passed on over the years at family gatherings.

But for tens-of-thousands of Native Americans, memories of their early school days are nightmares they've relived throughout their lives.

This is, of course, courtesy of Christian missionaries and the federal government who both felt "something" needed to be done about "the Indian problem". Yes, it does smack reminiscent of Germany's Little Corporal.

In the case of the Christians, the goal was to "save the pagan savages" and bring them into the fold of Jesus. A noble calling, I suppose, but I've always questioned the mindset of beating religion into someone. Automatically brings that "what would Jesus do" question right into the equation.

From the federal government side, the goal was to completely eradicate all traces of Native American cultures - something already attempted for centuries, and quite successfully from a genocidal point of view.

The problem was there were still too many of those "redskins" around — and they had all these kids to keep the cultures going.

Enter the boarding school system, which Native American children would be forced to attend and where they would be "assimilated" into the dominant Western European culture.

The methods used to achieve that result were quite a bit removed from the primary definition of the word: to take in, incorporate as one's own; absorb. Unless the parallel is: to absorb; as to soak up blood from a large, open wound.

And that's what Native American children received: wounds upon their bodies, their minds and their souls. Wounds that, for many, would never heal.

Upon their arrival at any of the dozens of boarding schools established across the country their hair was cut (a violation of most traditional Native American beliefs, especially among the Plains tribes), they were given uniforms to wear instead of their own clothing, their birth names were replaced with European-American names and they were forbidden to speak their native languages.

These regulations, often enforced with severe discipline that included physical and emotional abuse — and more, resulted in what some in the medical field now refer to as "Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder". The condition comes as a result of suffering abuse for months, or years, and particularly impacts children whose personalities are still forming during this abuse.

It's no surprise the boarding school system would follow such a path, having been created by U.S. Army Captain Richard Pratt — a man who supported Gen. Philip Sheridan's comment that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Pratt added a slight caveat by noting "all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

This topic came up recently while talking with a Lakota friend about "The Thick Dark Fog" — a documentary centered on the impacts the boarding school system had on one Lakota man: Walter Littlemoon, who — even as an elder, has trouble talking about that time in his life.

Having experienced the waning days of the strict Catholic school system, I've often told people that all those years with the nuns prepared me for Marine Corps boot camp.

For many Native Americans, the boarding school system mostly served to prepare them for reliving their abuses - over and over again.

The Rapid City Journal cans one columnist for publicly criticizing the paper's decision to lock its content behind a paywall. Now it stifles discussion of a crucial part of white-Native history. That suppression of unpleasant views doesn't seem the best way to celebrate the impending National Newspaper Week.

Next up: we'll see if the Rapid City Journal and the rest of South Dakota's white media find it too "divisive" to discuss this alleged instance of anti-Native hate speech at South Dakota State University.

* * *
The Thick Dark Fog trailer:

"The Thick Dark Fog" Official Trailer from Randy Vasquez on Vimeo.


  1. Sam Peil 2012.10.01

    Thank you for posting this, Cory.

  2. Charlie Johnson 2012.10.01

    I will second Sam's motion!!

  3. John 2012.10.01

    Thank you for posting Kent's oped. How come the RCJ thinks its fine and germane to publish reminders of the little corporal and the war it took to rid of the world of his legacy - but the bigotry, racism, and intolerance in our county and state and better left swept under the rug?!

    The idea that we, after a century of willful blindness, are finally changing geographic racist names is undone by the fact that South Dakota and the Black Hills have a state park, a county, and a town named for a serial rapist who also condoned the practice by the men under his command. Perhaps we should learn to expect this amoral behavior from corporations who are only in the business of increasing shareholder value - but the fact the regions' clergy are complicitly silent tells us more about their true god and absence of practicing what they preach.

  4. oldguy 2012.10.02

    Thank you Cory. Just because it happen long ago does not mean it does not matter

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.02

    Boy, John, I don't know if I should publish that comment. It sounds awfully divisive. ;-)

  6. Bill Fleming 2012.10.02

    What's divisive is ignoring the reality of the market you publish in. The RCJ should be at the front of the line in exposing the dark underbelly of racism and bigotry in our city and state. Instead, it chooses to model the neurotic, passive agressive "if you ignore it, it's not there" attitude in our communities that perpetuates it.

  7. Douglas Wiken 2012.10.02

    I too think the RC Journal made an error in not allowing that column to be published. But, I also think their criticism of the column is also legitimate.

    Reopening old sores is not going to change history. How far back should we go? Should we go back to the Sioux slaughtering other native tribes? Should we go back to the Inquistition? Should we go back to Spanish and Portuguese explorers bring Syphilis back to Europe from the natives of the new world?

    Native Americans are not helped by providing excuses, justified or not, for failure. Many of them understand this even if they share sorrow over the past. Many of them understand that working to live in their own homes and provide for their family is a better life than living in a Tepee and dying young.

    Reality bites.

  8. John Hess 2012.10.02

    So why are kids still going to the Flandreau Indian School? Their mission statement or web site doesn't really explain their continuing purpose. It must serve more than the local kids because they have dorms. Mission Statement: Flandreau Indian School provides opportunities for quality education experiences for Native American youth within the context of their cultural heritage.

  9. larry kurtz 2012.10.02

    Doug, you never cease to trouble me.

    Read Randy Rasmussen's rants to get a sense of which side of the white bread Lee chooses to butter: it's a litany of appeasement to the Ed Randazzos and the Art Oakeses of West River.

    Don't kid yourselves, South Dakota: the State colludes with the Church's lobbyists who own the legislature and the press in the chemical toilet.

  10. larry kurtz 2012.10.02

    Just posted by Mark Trahant: the invisible Indian voter.

    "There could be much more polling in states like South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Alaska and Oklahoma. But the pool would still have to be large enough to be valid – and more important, the questions that impact Indian country would have to be asked." ICTM.

  11. Bob J 2012.10.02

    The majority of these types of "hate crimes" are pathetic efforts by the supposed "victim" for attention.

    What's even more pathetic are the "activitists" who use these faux incidents to rally the gullible troops yearning desperately to be a part of something.

    Example: Lincoln, NE lesbian "attacked" a few months ago;big rally in Lincoln; later charged with false reporting; the duped sycopants go on waiting to be duped again

  12. Bill Fleming 2012.10.02

    Bob J. Wrong. The majority of hate crimes committed are never reported.

  13. Bob J 2012.10.02

    Native Americans are not helped by providing excuses, justified or not, for failure

    I saw the "documentary". There was little historical about it. I came away wondering why a documentary filmmaker would exploit such a vulnerable adult who has decided to blame all (I mean all) his problems on someone else. Maybe he had reasons to hate decades ago, but it's time to move on.

    And the "abuse" was not unique to natives--most formal education back then has its share of regimentation. Many states banned German,or banned German instruction, under physical punishment.

    That's not a documentary. It's glamorizing a sad life for the gain of the filmmaker.

  14. Bill Fleming 2012.10.02

    Nonsense, Bob. Are you also a Holocaust denier?

  15. grudznick 2012.10.02

    Mr. H, I salute you for recognizing a topic that will rile the masses. You are less bland than the Rapid City newspaper.

    Whatever happened to that fine free newspaper in Rapid you could pick up in little bins outside the Colonial House or that Asian grill on the north side of town where you fill your bowl as full as you can and they cook it? Now THAT was a good newspaper and I bet they would print Mr. Kent's article and get it to the masses.

  16. Justin 2012.10.02

    Bob, if you want to talk about phony victims, how about our Governor starting a statewide manhunt when he got a crank call from a crack head?

    I didn't see Obama sending the Marines after Ted Nugent.

  17. Randy B 2012.10.02

    A link to a study on historical trauma and the long term generational effects it has had on the native communities in North America.
    Excerpt from Summary -

    "[...]a new model is being introduced for trauma transmission and healing,
    citing the presence of complex or endemic post-traumatic stress disorder in Aboriginal culture, which originated as a direct result of historic trauma transmission (HTT). A variety of disciplines, including history, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and political science, are called upon to illuminate the model of historic trauma transmission and provide different perspectives and information on how historic trauma can be understood as a valid source of continuing dis-ease and reactivity to historical and social forces in Aboriginal communities.

    Purposeful universalization of the Indigenous people’s historic experience is proposed as a means to explain the basis for the creation of a nucleus of unresolved grief that has continued to affect successive generations of Indigenous people. The process of the universalization of trauma is purposefully placed in direct opposition to the particularization of Aboriginal cultural and social suffering."

  18. John Hess 2012.10.02

    How many of us know enough about the Native American experience to put ourselves in their shoes?

  19. Les 2012.10.02

    How many of us have done a darn thing besides act like we care.

    There is HTT in most genealogies Randy though it could be a matter of a few hundred years to a few hours compared to a hundred years or so to a few hours in the natives lives as well.

    Talk is cheap and trauma is everywhere.

  20. Justin 2012.10.02

    Nice post, Les.

    I don't think I've done anything to help. I can say I'm not a bigot, but that doesn't mean I've made a positive impact.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.02

    Les, we've all got sad stories, but I can confidently say I and most of my comfy white neighbors here in Spearfish do not suffer from any Historical Trauma Transmission. We'll find varying degrees of HTT in all cultures, but generally speaking, HTT is going to be much more significant in aboriginal cultures than in conquistador cultures... unless we white folks are suffering from some lingering guilt and trauma over the crimes we committed... but I doubt that's as acute as what Randy's talking about.

  22. K. 2012.10.02

    I don't know if you really have to do anything to help other than be aware of the fact that boarding schools were not consitent with the ideals which this country were founded on. By not being allowed to speak their own language, practice their own religion and pursue their own sense of happiness they being denied their rights as human beings.

  23. grudznick 2012.10.02

    Then boarding schools were bad. Bad. I saw them up close.

    Now boarding schools are necessary. Necessary. I have seen what they protect the children from up close.

  24. grudznick 2012.10.02

    What have we wrought and how shall we fix it? Can we? Should we?

    If not us then who? There is no god, and I do not trust the Howites to do any better.

  25. Les 2012.10.02

    You do not know Speartown very well yet Cory. It is not the Rez for sure but a lost culture most definately exists there as well as Lead and Sturgis, a few areas I can speak to.
    Though these communities don't compare to McGlaughlin, the numbers of American Indians do not compare to the greater numbers in tribes of all colors, lost in the current culture of the US.
    That being said, I will never disagree with the hard facts on our American Indian's lot in life, it has been a dispicable hand dealt.

    Awareness is a first step, but the revving of the engines in these posts, is no better than what I find in DC. Every year I go back to see no solutions for last years problems. Those problems have just been replaced by other issues to create a semblance of accomplishment. That is what I find disturbing and why I vented in my initial comment.

  26. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.10.02

    Les, I appreciate your venting and acknowledge that I have no solutions. Education? Economic development? Reparations? Permit Republic of Lakotah to secede? Go back to Europe? Tear up all the treaties, dissolve tribal governments and reservations?

    But whatever solution might exist will not be found in Bob's denialist likening of our discrimination against our own German-blooded neighbors during wartime with the full-scale culture crushing that we branded "Manifest Destiny."

  27. Douglas Wiken 2012.10.02

    Cultures come and go. Some work, some don't.

    Multi-culture is a rotten idea. We can tolerate multiple races and mixtures so long as a common culture is shared.

    How much multi-culturalism must be supported by the general culture? How many languages should be supported in courts and schools?

    The idea that every language and culture is special and warrants special consideration is a route to a destructive economic and social tower of babel.

  28. K. 2012.10.03

    The common culture are the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. All people should be entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." People should be able speak their own language, practice their own religion and be who they want to be. Nothing is more American than that.

    Your vision of America is synonomous with McDonaldization.

  29. Les 2012.10.03

    Spend an afternoon in Eagle Butte or McGlaughlin and it all seems very hopeless in short order Cory. It doesn't need to be that way if our state elected were not so willing to hand it off under the excuse of it's a federal problem. That is the only local level with enough clout for a start.

    Something about the melting pot doesn't quite fit with your analysis K. Common culture is the melting of all who come to America to define a new life in my opinion.

    So now it appears we come to America to make America fit? The American Indian is the only person in our country with any rights to that degree, again my opinion.

    There is no doubt we could use some change, but a hundred new languages doesn't sound to me like the catalyst needed.

  30. larry kurtz 2012.10.03

    The one common symbol in every South Dakota community is the American Flag but never have i seen a state flag flying on any reservation.

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