The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Unmarked Graves at Indian Boarding Schools

Jan 31, 2022

On January 25, the Williams Lake, British Columbia, First Nations reported finding ground-penetrating radar indications of 93 unmarked graves on the site of a former Indian Residential School.

This technology has so far revealed over 1,900 such sites across Canada, mostly in 2021. Such research lags in the U.S., but a radar study at a former Salem, Oregon school (they were called Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S.) indicated a few hundred likely unmarked graves. At a Genoa, Nebraska, school, records were found of 87 previously unknown deaths.

Only the persistence of the families, over long decades of official cover-ups, led to these few results, which simply represent many thousands more children, victims of government policies.

Assimilation by Whip

By the 1890s, after the near-extermination of Native American peoples, and after the few survivors were confined to small barren reservations, the U.S. government developed a new Indian policy called “assimilation.” Operating from 1816 through 1972, the policy was summed up in the favorite motto of Brigadier General Richard H. Pratt, commander of a “model” Indian boarding school opened in 1896: “Kill the Indian in the man, but save the man.” Native children would be taken from their homes, put in “boarding schools” far away, and forced to take on a new European Christian identity. The government subcontracted most of these 367 schools to churches, primarily the Catholic Church.

The newly manufactured “Christians” were supposed to “assimilate” into the main capitalist society, and as they did so, they would lose any claims on reservation lands. Then in a generation or so, the government could sell off the lands to ranchers, miners, or other bidders. Obligations to Natives would cease to be a government budget issue. In the words of Duncan Scott, who ran the similar Canadian policy: “… to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

The methods used in these schools were militaristic and brutal. “Beat the Indian out of them” was the watchword. Children were assigned European names, European clothing, European haircuts. They were punished for speaking any word of their own language, for having any piece of Indian clothing or ornament, for holding on to any reminder whatever of their former lives. The suffering can hardly be imagined.

Schoolchildren were often rented out to local families for domestic or farm labor. Children lived in school barracks, generally unheated, without proper sanitation. Children would die of T.B., of malnutrition, of influenza. Children would freeze to death in their beds in the winter. The deaths might be reported to the families—or might not.

Stonewalling and Cover-Ups

Knowledge of these atrocities stayed alive in memories of the schools’ survivors and their families, but they had little access to official records or to any sort of recompense. In 2011, for example, researchers gained access to some of the Catholic Church’s school archives in Canada. But in a few months, permission was withdrawn. Then in 2014, the property was sold, and the archives moved … to the Vatican. Canadian tribes have not yet been allowed access.

Similarly, in 2016 in the U.S., a tribal federation filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, for records relating to deaths at the schools. Five years later, they have had no response.

The attempted physical and cultural extermination of Native Americans had no justification other than the desire to take over their communally-used land, to convert it into plots individually owned and saleable, and to pursue the maximum possible profit from those privatized land sections and resources. The human cost did not count.

The Wizard … of Extermination

L. Frank Baum, author of the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz, defender of Central Plains farmers, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, January 3, 1891: “… we had better, in order to protect our civilization … wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” It was a common and barbaric opinion, in a barbaric system, that still today pretends it can be civilized.