In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a program was set up by the U.S. and Canadian governments to streamline assimilation, (the process by which different cultures are absorbed into a single mainstream culture) in Indigenous peoples of North America. The ludicrous concept that such an assimilation would be desired or necessary amongst Indian peoples came from both an over-riding racist mentality in the mainstream culture, and from Captain Richard H. Pratt, who, in 1877, wrote: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The dominant culture of the time was largely made up of European settlers who assumed the superiority of their ways. This is known as ethnocentrism, which means to judge another culture or society by the standards of one’s own. But to murder the inner Indian, the dominant culture would have to erase the culture, tradition, language, and spirituality of the Native. It would have to be methodical, and on a large scale. Hence were born the Residential Schools.
In North America and Canada, Native children were literally taken from their families homes, forced to cut their hair, abandon their traditional practices. Those caught speaking their Native languages were punished, sometimes brutally. There are also many documented cases of physical, mental, and sexual abuse that took place in these schools. The schools were run by various denominations of churches, which, though perhaps at times well-meaning, were committing cultural genocide against their pupils, and badly harming the families from whom these children were ripped away. They were instilling in Native children and teens the belief that their culture was not good enough, that they were inferior because of their heritage.
Though some met spouses and made lifelong friends at boarding school, many people have been harmed by these dark institutions. Languages have died while generation after generation of children were sent away, learning only English, and forgetting their Native practices. But all is not forgotten. In my Tribe, there is a saying: “Only when the last person who knows how to listen to the cedar tree dies, will the culture ever be lost.”
The spiritual practices are still in the trees. They can be heard in the sound of ocean waves, whispered on the wind in the flap of eagles‘ wings. And Elders still live who know the Old Ways, and young adults like you exist who care enough about your people to learn them. We must seek the Elders for their wisdom and guidance, and never retreat from our heritage or be ashamed of our ethnicities. Far from what Residential Schools implied, there is nothing wrong with our culture or traditions. In fact, it is through those cultures and traditions that we can find healing from the cycles of trauma and abuse from the past. Instead of ethnocentrism, we as Americans must seek to instill something known as cultural relativism, which is to judge a society by its own standards.
Misty Lynn Ellingburg (Shoalwater Bay) is a student at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in English (concentration Literature) and minoring in Professional Writing. She has two brothers and two sisters--Brandt, Shana, Hope, and Hunter. Her mom, Lory, is a Tribal artist, and her dad, Todd, is becoming fluent in Salish, a local Tribal language.