Facing History and Ourselves, Quaker Style: Indian Boarding Schools Are Our Shame Too

Facing History and Ourselves is the title of a book and a mini-course in Holocaust Education. I took the course and used the book myself in my high school teaching.

But what about that uniquely American, slo-mo Holocaust, the attempted eradication of Native culture? In grad school I learned about the Indian boarding schools of the late 19th and early-mid 20th century: the kidnapping of entire generations from their homes, and the creation of generations of people who felt alienated from both communities, Native and white. And of course I shook my head over the terrible thinking of the past, and its terrible, long-term effects.

But I never realized that people of my own religious background, Quakers, were eager perpetrators of that shameful enterprise, until a friend sent me an article in Friends Journal, by Quaker writer Paula Palmer, entitled “Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing History and Ourselves.”

What’s this? Quakers, you say? But we’re the good guys! Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape! Marching for Civil Rights! Becoming Conscientious Objectors in the Korean and Vietnam Wars! 

I may not be a very religious Quaker, but I’ve always been a very proud political Quaker, the product of Carolina Friends School, the first integrated school in North Carolina.

So, with a sense of unease, I read the article. I read this:

More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents, grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered. As adults, when the former boarding school students had children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says that for healing to occur, the full truth about the boarding schools and the policy of forced assimilation must come to light in our country, as it has in Canada. The first step in a truth, reconciliation, and healing process, they say, is truth telling. A significant piece of the truth about the boarding schools is held by the Christian churches that collaborated with the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation. Quakers were among the strongest promoters of this policy and managed over 30 schools for Indian children, most of them boarding schools, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The coalition is urging the churches to research our roles during the boarding school era, contribute this research to the truth and reconciliation process, and ask ourselves what this history means to us today.

And this:

In a letter dated May 26, 1853, teacher Susan Wood at the Quaker Tunesassa Indian Boarding School in New York, wrote:

“We are satisfied it is best to take the children when small, and then if kept several years, they would scarcely, I think, return to the indolent and untidy ways of their people.”

And this:

For a child’s view, we have The School Days of an Indian Girl, written in 1900 by Zitkala-Sa, a Lakota woman who entered White’s Institute, a Quaker Indian boarding school in Indiana, at age eight:

“I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. . . . Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards! . . . I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me . . . for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

Modoc School, Indian Territory, 1877 (Courtesy Friends Journal and Haverford College Quaker Collection)

In these days of Trumpmerica, with its white supremacist marches (“some of them are good people!” said our prez), it’s easy to point fingers and say, “You are on the wrong side of history.” But, I am finding, it is even more important to look at the history of the people I most claim as “mine,” and say aloud: “We did wrong. We need to acknowledge and atone in order to help heal the damage we helped to do.”

So says Paula Palmer:

Native organizations are not asking us to judge our Quaker ancestors. They are asking, “Who are Friends today? Knowing what we know now, will Quakers join us in honest dialogue? Will they acknowledge the harm that was done? Will they seek ways to contribute toward healing processes that are desperately needed in Native communities?” These are my questions, too.

And mine.

Ottowa School, Indian Territory, 1872 (Courtesy Friends Journal and Haverford College Quaker Collection)

Was the revelation of Quaker complicity in Native boarding schools a surprise to you, as it was to me? Please consider passing this post–or better yet, Parker Palmer’s–on to someone else, or to any organization that might benefit from considering the attempt of the country’s most “politically correct” religious organization to face history, and itself.

5 thoughts on “Facing History and Ourselves, Quaker Style: Indian Boarding Schools Are Our Shame Too

  1. Yes, I was very surprised. And saddened. Yes, let’s talk about it. I firmly believe in bringing subjects like this out into the light. That’s when the healing can begin.

    • A small group of us within Meeting are gathering to discuss systemic racism later this week. That’s where the article came from, and I look forward to seeing the topic ripple outward. We Quakers can be pretty complacent when comparing ourselves with other groups!

  2. Pingback: *Afterthought #69 – Reblog: Quaker Indian Boarding Schools | Iris Graville

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