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Schools tried to forcibly assimilate Indigenous kids. Can the U.S. make amends?


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A mass grave with the remains of 215 children was recently found near the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, a boarding school in British Columbia, Canada. It closed in 1978.

It was a shocking discovery, and part of a dark history of forcibly assimilating indigenous people.

Indian boarding schools have a long history in this country as well. Just yesterday, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced a new federal initiative that will -- quote -- "uncover the truth" and the lasting consequences of these schools.

Jeffrey Brown has the story of one of them and an attempt to understand and acknowledge a troubled past.

It's part of our arts and culture series, canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Portraits of a lost time, a painful time for many, a boarding school for Native American children.

Belen Benway, Graduate, College of Saint Benedict: And then we also had this photograph.

Woman: OK.

Belen Benway: And you wouldn't happen to know what these buildings are?

Jeffrey Brown: They were found in an unusual archive, in the basement of the Saint Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, by students at the adjacent College of Saint Benedict, including Belen Benway.

Belen Benway: So ,the first time that I went into the archives, and I saw the first photo, it was really just life-changing for me, honestly, because you got to see this whole other side of history that you don't really get taught about a lot.

I found out that a lot of the pictures had never really been seen before. Like, they didn't even know that they had these photographs until we were out looking for them.

Jeffrey Brown: Some three hours north, at the White Earth Indian Reservation, tribal historic preservation officer Jaime Arsenault was also deeply moved by photographs she'd never seen before.

Jaime Arsenault, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer: When I first saw the images, I was thinking about the community, about family members that maybe never had seen those images either.

Jeffrey Brown: In the late 19th century, the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict began operating boarding schools for Native American students, including one on the White Earth Reservation.

The sisters were hardly alone. From the 1870s to as late as the 1970s, nearly 400 boarding schools, most of them government-run, operated around the country. Native languages, religion, and customs were forbidden. The goal, to separate Indian children from their homes and strip away their indigenous cultures.

Jaime Arsenault: There was loss of allotments, loss of timber, loss of access to water or loss of access to be able to do subsistence living and feed your family. Ceremonies and traditional practices were frowned upon, in the sense that your food rations could be withheld, that type of thing.

And in the middle of all of that came this loss of children.

Sister Carol Berg, Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict: The sisters who came were not, to put IT bluntly, trained at all. I suspect most of them knew little or nothing about American Indians at that point.

Jeffrey Brown: Sister Carol Berg is a retired historian who focused her doctoral dissertation White Earth and broader assimilation policies.

Sister Carol Berg: It was a deliberate act. There's no doubt about that. Some parents were glad to have the children come because the children had a roof over their heads, they had three meals a day.

But, in the end, I think American Indian families had no choice. I mean, they had to submit to this policy.

Jeffrey Brown: By the middle of the 20th century, the White Earth Reservation boarding school became a day school and eventually closed in 1969.

But the impact of separation from family and culture, Jaime Arsenault says, can be felt to this day.

Jaime Arsenault: It disrupted lots of families, and for multiple generations. And then it makes it more difficult for somebody to make a healthy choice. It makes it more difficult for someone to build healthy relationships.

Ted Gordon, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University: I knew that there's a very complex history there, that this was an issue for Native communities that had a severe impact on their identities, on their family structures. And I had wanted to know more about it.

Jeffrey Brown: Ted Gordon is an anthropology professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University who focuses on Native American studies.

Ted Gordon: I wouldn't describe it as a kind of intentionally hidden in any sense. But was this something that was -- where students were actively taught about this history, where there were opportunities for people to learn about it, beyond somebody who would take the initiative to read the history of the land here? That wasn't happening.

Jeffrey Brown: Gordon found the monastery eager to open its archives, and he recruited students like Belen Benway, herself a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community, also in Minnesota, to help gather and study a trove of more than a hundred old photographs.

Belen Benway: You can see like the emotions and how they physically lived, because they took pictures of every -- they really had a good documentation of a lot of things that went on in the schools. They had the pictures of the bedrooms that they would sleep in.

They had a picture of them in class. They had pictures of every single thing that they did at the schools. So, it really painted a strong picture for me.

Jeffrey Brown: Ted Gordon and his team approached Jaime Arsenault at the White Earth Reservation.

Ted Gordon: And so Jaime suggested, why don't we write a new chapter? And if we share these materials, that's what we're kind of describing as the truth part in truth and reconciliation.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a small piece of a larger national effort.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, an attempt to return human remains and sacred cultural artifacts taken from tribal nations without their consent.

Jaime Arsenault: We're really trying to expand the definition of what repatriation is. And so that could be language. It could be an archive. It can be a photograph.

Jeffrey Brown: In this case, it's a digital repatriation of dozens of photographs, now accessible to descendants of Native boarding school students.

Evelyn Bellanger, Descendant of Native Boarding School Student: I think we need closure.

Jeffrey Brown: People like community elders Evelyn Bellanger and Joe Lagarde. Both had family members who attended the schools.

Joe Lagarde, Descendant of Native Boarding School Student: Yes, we have to start to recover what is ours, whether it's artifacts they call or our sacred item.

Jaime Arsenault: What they have and what -- connecting with them is not going to change anything that happened. But it's a starting point for a relationship that can help us lead to healing.

Jeffrey Brown: It's something that's weighed on the present-day Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict.

Sister Carol Berg: We certainly do regret that we have done some injustice, I think, in the past, again, much out of ignorance, I would say, not out of ill will, but we must acknowledge, I think, that we have done some wrongs.

Jeffrey Brown: And now the monastery has done just that, in a recent letter to Jaime Arsenault and the White Earth community that included an apology.

You were talking about the kind of national moment we're in.

Jaime Arsenault: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you think of what's happening now between White Earth and the college and the monastery, is it a good story, in a sense, or potentially a good story?

Jaime Arsenault: I do, because we're taking a history that is complex and, for many people, very, very painful, and we're trying to move forward as a country.

But I think that we really need to look at some of these past events that are unfinished, right? And we need to really examine that, really look at that, and use that as that impetus to move forward.

Jeffrey Brown: Arsenault hopes this will become a model for other repatriation efforts between institutions and tribal nations, but she knows many open wounds remain.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Such a huge story. So important to follow that.

Thank you, Jeff Brown.

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