Opinion. About thirty years ago, I made a deal with myself to read at least one book a year written by a conservative right-winger so that I could try to understand the rationale behind their positions on race relations and governmental policy. As the years flew by and the United States became extremely polarized, I stopped reading conservative writings because I found many of their arguments lacked merit and were, quite often, mean-spirited and laced with paternalistic attitudes towards people of color.
So this past Monday when one of my business partners sent me a link to an article entitled “Stirring Up Hatred Against Indian Boarding Schools: The Interior Department joins the movement to rebrand education as cultural genocide,” I read it with some hesitation. Published by The American Conservative, the article was written by one of the magazine’s senior editors, Helen Andrews.
Andrews takes issue with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report that was released on May 11, 2022. She accuses the U.S. Department of the Interior of making a big deal out of nothing.
“This attempt to create a national scandal over Indian boarding schools is a thoroughly political scheme contrived by activists to stoke outrage regardless of the facts. No surprise there, because that is what the issue has always been, from the very beginning,” Andrews writes.
“The strange thing about the residential schools outrage is that for decades the issue simply did not exist,” she continues.
Andrews is dead wrong. Native Americans have known the boarding school issue existed for more than a century. In most tribal communities and Native families, people knew about the wreckage caused by Indian boarding schools, but simply did not speak openly about it.
It’s worth noting that when the news first broke about the graves of Native children at the Kamloops residential school last May, Native News Online decided to wait until Tuesday to report on it. At the time, my business partner, who is not Native, questioned me and our managing editor at the time (a First Nations citizen) why we did not have a sense of urgency about the story.
We told him that it was not really news to us. We have known about Native children buried in unmarked graves at Indian boarding schools for years.
History has proven my news judgment on that day was wrong. The Kamloops story woke up the world to the atrocities committed against Native children by the federal governments of Canada and the United States. The story of Indian boarding schools and the generational trauma they caused — a story that was largely unspoken by Native people for decades and mostly unknown by non-Natives for just as long — was suddenly front page news. For the first time in my life, both Natives and non-Natives were talking about boarding schools and their effect on Indigenous communities and families.
Ignoring most of this, The American Conservative’s article is long and dissects various aspects of the Indian boarding schools, mostly portraying them as a means to fast-forward our ancestors into American society through assimilation. The justification of the piece seems to be: Indian boarding schools were needed to bring Native Americans in from the dark ages.
Native News Online’s Senior Reporter Jenna Kunze, who has reported about half of the 120-plus stories we’ve written about Indian boarding schools over the past year, read Andrews’ article as well. On Friday, she wrote me, “Andrews writes from an ethno-centric point of view that assumes the behavior of the government had the best interest of Native American kids, and that the conditions of the schools were objectively better for the children—remember we're talking about five-year-olds taken away from their families.
“Her critique on the delay of the movement from the time boarding schools were closed (she says most were closed in the 1930s, but many were open through the 1970s) does little to account for systemic oppression against Native Americans in this country, the psychological impact and code of indoctrination and/or silence boarding school instilled in its children, and the fact that the United States was not positioned to reckon with this history until very recently."
I also reached out to Aaron Payment (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe), an Native American education scholar, who has his doctorate in education, to ask what he thought of Andrews’ writing.
“The investigation into the experience of American Indians forcibly removed from their homes and subjected to assimilation mills that used brainwashing tactics to strip away culture, language, spirituality, identity, and make no mistake treaty and trust obligations is not about blame but about reconciliation and healing,” Dr. Payment told me. “This political hate movement of anti-critical race theory is a dog whistle and attempt at moral and ethical absolution of the past. Manifest destiny was used to justify raping the land and stealing from the indigenous people as God’s will. We all own a piece of our past and all own the responsibility to learn from it so we can truly live in a free and just society.”
While conservatives often crow loudly about freedom and individual liberties, they seem to want no part in discussing freedoms and liberties that were stripped from Native Americans over the course of two centuries. The Indian boarding school discussion evidently makes some conservatives, like Andrews, uncomfortable. I don’t know the author; nor does she know me. However, after reading the article, it is safe to assume she knows few, if any, Native Americans.
Rather than sitting in an ivory tower and writing an article that tries to erase our history, perhaps Andrews should come down to Indian Country, talk to some of our elders who attended boarding schools and seek to understand the other side of the story. She will hear truth in each of their stories.
I often say it is time for Native Americans to tell our own stories because we have not always been happy with how they are told by non-Native people. From Hollywood to history books, American Indians and Alaska Natives have been misrepresented at best and erased at worst.
If the narrative about Indian Country is ever going to change, we must tell our own stories. We can’t let them be told by people with political agendas who want to whitewash our history. We must fight back against those who seek to squelch the truth so that our tribal communities and Native families can heal.
Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.
About the Author: "Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print\/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org."