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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Native Americans lost culture in boarding schools

By Matt Koper /reporter

Lisa Uhlir was among the first generation of Native Americans who weren’t sent to Native American boarding schools.

The NE government professor spoke Nov. 12 on NE Campus about the hardships Native Americans faced when sent away to boarding schools as part of a series promoting Native American Heritage Month.

She read a story she had written about her great-great grandfather, “Speaks Thunder,” a member of the Ojibwa Native American tribe and the first in her family to be sent to a boarding school.

“He told many stories of how the metal beast [a train] swallowed up his very soul on this trip, the same beast that spat him back out in the same spot 10 years later a very different man,” she said. “He was no longer Speaks Thunder — he was now a white man himself.”

Uhlir then explained “annihilation to assimilation,” a change in the U.S. federal policy in dealing with Native Americans after the Indian Wars were over.

“‘Kill the Indian, save the man’ was a saying that was adopted after the Indian Wars, meaning not to kill off the physical body but the cultural Indian within the person,” she said.

The government, in an attempt at assimilation, enacted the Dawes Act to take Native American lands held communally by tribes and break them apart into separate individual plots, Uhlir said.

“If you were an adult over 18, you could receive anywhere from 20 to 100 acres maximum, depending on the size of the reservation,” she said. “If you were under 18, you could receive five to 20 acres.”

Any land that wasn’t used for individual plots was taken, Uhlir said.

“If you had a million acres and only used 10,000 for these plots, the rest would be taken by the U.S. government and sold to white settlers,” she said.

The second phase of “killing the Indian, saving the man” was to send the youngest off to school and teach them English and Western ways so when they came back, they would have forgotten their culture, Uhlir said.

“For 80-plus years, Indians were required by law to send their children to these boarding schools or be threatened that the government would withhold rations,” she said.

They were not your typical boarding schools, Uhlir said.

“The first thing that happened once you got off the train is they would take away all Native American regalia and give them wool uniforms,” she said. “Then came the haircut. Since most Native American tribes believe the spirit lies in the head, by removing hair, you’re starting over and losing part of yourself and your old soul.”

Not only did they shave Native Americans’ heads, take their clothes, forbid them to speak and worship in their own language, they tortured them as well, Uhlir said.

“My grandfather, when he was 6 years old, was speaking his language since he was struggling with English. He was put in shackles and thrown in a root cellar — one with no windows or light,” she said. “They forgot about him and left him in there for four days.”

A report done in 1928 detailed the conditions of the schools and compared the abuse to medieval torture and noted the constant starvation and the horrible living conditions, Uhlir said.

“Most of the buildings were condemned by architects, with no running water,” she said. “They started each year overcrowded with 40 percent more students than they could handle. Students slept three to four in a bed. Disease ran rampant.”

Today, Native Americans don’t want payback, Uhlir said.

“All we want is acknowledgment of what occurred by the U.S. government, not restitution,” she said.

NE student Michelle Cowart left the speech angry at the mistreatment of Native Americans.

“U.S. history has hidden the atrocities that were enacted upon Native Americans,” she said. “I feel ashamed to be associated with a group that is willing to do this.”

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