The Associated Press , April 24, 1999
American Indians Describe School Beatings
By Matt Kelley
WAHPETON, N.D. (AP) -- It was the beating she didn't get that still haunts Joyce Burr.
She and several friends were hiding from a dormitory matron in the coat room of the Wahpeton Indian School. They peeked from behind the coats as the enraged matron, herself an Indian, caught up with an older Chippewa girl named Judy Karvonen.
``That's the worst beating I've ever seen. That woman used coat hangers and everything on her,'' said Burr, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa/Oglala Sioux. ``You can imagine not trying to move, trying not to make a sound, when you're seeing that.''
Burr was just one of thousands of American Indian children sent to boarding schools run by the government or by Christian denominations. The coat room beating was just one of thousands administered in the name of keeping order, of crushing Indian identity, of immersing Indian children in white American society. Today, about 10,000 Indian children are enrolled in the schools, though their mission has changed.
Burr herself had suffered through plenty of thrashings at Wahpeton, where she lived from 1952 to 1959. Dormitory workers beat her for climbing trees, or for not making her bed quickly enough.
Karvonen became Burr's mentor and protector after Burr's mother died during her first year away from home. Burr and her friends also were like sisters to Karvonen, who spent five years at Wahpeton without seeing her family on the Turtle Mountain reservation. So she never told the matron where her friends were hiding, and never again mentioned the coat room beating to her classmates.
``I just withheld everything inside me and wouldn't cry for nobody or nothing,'' Karvonen said.
The worst abuse, Burr said nearly 45 years later, came from Indian dormitory workers who had attended boarding schools themselves.
``They personally took great glee in beating you. Some of them were very sadistic,'' Burr said. ``... I suppose the same thing happened to them, so they turned around and did the same thing to us.''
For more than a century, tens of thousands of American Indians surrendered their childhoods at boarding schools like Wahpeton, a prairie outpost 45 miles south of Fargo.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs began opening boarding schools in the 1870s, joining a parallel system of religious boarding schools for Indians run by Christian missionaries.
Federal boarding school enrollments swelled from 6,200 at 60 schools in 1885 to more than 17,000 in 153 schools at the turn of the century. By 1931, nearly one-third of Indian children were in boarding schools, a total of about 24,000. Enrollments have declined to less than half that number at 52 federal boarding schools today.
At both government and mission schools, the goal was the same: obliterating all that was Indian.
Former students and boarding school historians say the methods were often violent and humiliating -- forcing children to eat lye soap for speaking their tribal languages, cropping their long hair, paddling them for having Indian medicine bundles.
``We were never going to be like the white man, no matter how hard we tried, but they forced us to try to be like the white man,'' said Jo Anna Meninick, a Yakama. She attended the government-run Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., in the 1950s.
``They stripped us of our language. They stripped us of our religious beliefs. They stripped us of our family life, our family values. They stripped us from our culture.''
Some former boarding school workers say much of the abuse stemmed from ignorance and overwork.
Sister Miriam Shindelar was a dorm attendant from 1967 to 1970 at the Marty Indian School, a Roman Catholic institution on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota.
``That first year, I was in charge of 91 high school girls,'' said Shindelar, who also taught at the school from 1974 to 1984. ``You didn't have the kinds of time that a family would have. You ended up being largely a disciplinarian.''
Not every school worker was abusive, said Esther Horne, 89, a Shoshone who taught at Wahpeton from 1930 to 1965. ``There were some people who were harsh on the children, but there were also a great many others who were very solicitous, creating a happy environment in the dormitory,'' she said.
Other boarding school officials approved of the beatings. Phoenix Indian School Superintendent John B. Brown objected in 1928 when his bosses in Washington ordered a halt to corporal punishment.
``We deal with a primitive race, with persons who often lack appreciation of the reasons for good behavior,'' Brown wrote.
Canada had its own system of boarding schools for Indian children, and the Canadian government has acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was widespread. Last year, Canada formally apologized and set aside more than $230 million to pay for counseling programs developed by tribal groups.
A flurry of lawsuits and a royal commission's report detailing the abuses forced the Canadian government's hand, said Shawn Tupper of Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
``It was obvious that the government had to take some action and focus on helping these people recover,'' Tupper said.
No similar action by the United States has been proposed in Congress, said Senate Indian Affairs Committee spokesman Chris Changery.
Still, the boarding school story is not just a tale of misery. Some former students saw the schools as a refuge from poverty, abuse or abandonment at home. Many say they gained the education and self-control needed to be successful.
One is Ernie Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d'Alene tribe in northern Idaho. He attended the Chilocco Indian School in north-central Oklahoma in 1963-64.
``When I went into boot camp in the military, it wasn't too hard for me, because I had already in a sense been to boot camp,'' said Stensgar, who was wounded in Vietnam.
``Kill the Indian, save the man.'' That was the motto of Gen. Richard Pratt, the former commander of an Indian POW camp who founded the first off-reservation federal boarding school in 1879.
The government bureaucrats and Christian missionaries who molded the boarding school system had the same idea. Indians must be forced to follow ``the superior methods of the white man,'' Wellington Rich, the first superintendent of the Phoenix Indian School, said in 1890.
At the very least, U.S. Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan said that year, it was ``cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.'' A predecessor, Carl Schurz, had done the math, calculating in 1882 that it cost nearly $1 million to kill an Indian in battle, but $1,200 for eight years of schooling.
So students marched with military-style discipline. They exchanged their own buckskins or calico dresses for neck-to-toe uniforms. Government boarding schools were particularly harsh, former students and government records say. The schools required students to attend Christian religious services on Sundays and renounce their tribal religions. Many children were sent into surrounding communities to work for white families -- the girls as domestic servants, the boys as farmhands.
In the late 1920s, federal boarding schools fed students thin gruel, moldy molasses and weak coffee for 11 cents per day, the equivalent of $1 today. Government inspectors in the 1930s cited the Haskell Institute, a federal boarding school in Lawrence, Kan., for having bathrooms that were nothing more than a row of chamber pots lined up in a closet.
Classroom instruction took up half of the day or less at most federal schools, with the rest devoted to hard labor. Students kept the schools running by doing everything from building the buildings to raising livestock and harvesting crops.
Former students tell of being forced to kneel on bare wooden floors for hours when they misunderstood commands barked in the unfamiliar English language. They remember beatings for crying out of homesickness. They speak of being chained in makeshift jails if they tried to run away.
``We didn't like ourselves because we were Indian,'' said Meninick, now a cultural resource officer with the Yakama Nation in south-central Washington. ``We were bad. We were no good. We were uneducated, illiterate. We were not going to amount to anything.''
Some schools banned parents from visiting, lest they infect their children with tribal culture. Being separated from their families for months or years meant that many boarding school students never learned how to be good parents.
``They were very strict. They were very stern. They were very cold,'' said Ida Amiotte, 77, an Oglala Sioux. She attended a Roman Catholic boarding school in Pine Ridge, S.D. in the 1920s and '30s. ``My children always asked me, `Why are you so cold? Why don't you hug us?' I said, `I never learned how.'''
Boarding school staff also forced students to beat their classmates. Some schools used the ``hotline,'' in which the offending student was forced to walk a gauntlet of classmates wielding belts or sticks or hairbrushes.
``The girls had to walk the gauntlet and get the backs of their legs switched, and if the switcher was too light on the switch, they had to do it hard. These girls had legs that were swollen three times their size,'' said Vi Hilbert, who attended boarding schools in Washington and Oregon in the 1920s and '30s. Hilbert is a member of the Upper Skagit tribe.
Students died by the hundreds from epidemics, farm accidents and other causes, said Cleveland State University professor David Adams, an expert on the boarding school system. Firm numbers are unavailable because many schools sent seriously ill children home or never recorded student deaths, he said.
The cemetery at Haskell alone has 102 student graves. Government documents show at least 500 more students died and were buried elsewhere, said Charles Haines, a biology professor at what is now Haskell Indian Nations University.
Some students killed themselves. One was 18-year-old John Thomas, a Pima who shot himself in the head at the Phoenix Indian School in 1896. ``No reason for such act can be ascertained,'' school Superintendent Harwood Hall reported in a brief dispatch to Washington.
A graduate of the Marty Indian School, Glenn Holiday, became a dormitory supervisor there before killing himself in 1978 in his early 20s, Shindelar said.
``He left a message saying, `I don't know which world I belong in. Some of my best friends are white,''' Shindelar said. ``He said he was accused by his friends of being an apple -- red on the outside, white on the inside. And the struggle was too much for him.''
Boarding school conditions improved as government and church policy gradually shifted away from forced assimilation and enrollments declined.
``It is beautiful, civilized human life we are chopping to pieces at sizeable cost to the taxpayer,'' reformer John Collier wrote about boarding schools in 1923. A decade later, Franklin Roosevelt picked Collier to head the BIA, and Collier tried to ban beatings and improve conditions at the schools. Later, Indians themselves began running the BIA.
Military discipline at boarding schools was mostly gone by the 1950s. Schools abandoned most of their hard labor programs by the 1960s. After a 1969 congressional report declared Indian education ``a national tragedy,'' tribes got more say in their schools and began introducing aspects of tribal culture into the classrooms.
Now 35 of the 52 government boarding schools are on the vast Navajo reservation, an area the size of West Virginia that includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Nine schools are on other reservations in South Dakota, Arizona, Washington and Mississippi.
Eight federal off-reservation boarding schools remain: In Wahpeton; Pierre and Flandreau, S.D.; Talequah and Anadarko, Okla.; Salem, Ore.; Riverside, Calif.; and Santa Fe, N.M.
The off-reservation schools have largely evolved into specialized treatment centers for troubled Indian youths. Wahpeton is now called Circle of Nations and is overseen by a tribal school board.
Joyce Burr has returned as superintendent of the school. Karen Gillis, an Arikara friend who hid with Burr in the coat room, is assistant superintendent.
``We know how it was and how it can be, so we try to do it right for the kids this time around,'' Gillis said.
When Burr became superintendent in 1995, she looked up Judy Karvonen and hired her to oversee the girls' dormitory.
``They (students) seem to bond with you better, since you've been to a school like this that was more crude and harsh than this is,'' Karvonen said.
They are among many boarding school survivors working to heal the hurts.
Shindelar led a religious service last year at which Indians and whites prayed and sang at school sites where abuses occurred.
Burr has enacted strict protections for her students at Wahpeton. ``You even verbally abuse these kids,'' she said, ``you're out of here.'' She dreams of organizing a conference of healing for adults who were abused in the Indian boarding schools.
``I guess that hurt never goes away. I'm 52, and I still feel it.''