Tom Torlino, a Navajo student, is seen circa 1882 in before and after photos from the collection of Richard Henry Pratt, who was the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Image: Yale University

Tim Giago: Boarding school trauma still haunts Indian Country

Notes from Indian Country

The historic trauma that still haunts Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

What has been the long-term impact of the Indian boarding school experiment? In South Dakota there was Marty Indian School, St. Stephan’s, St. Francis, Holy Rosary Mission, Flandreau Indian School, Oglala Community School and St. Joseph’s Indian School.

I say experiment because over the past 125 years the Indian people have been used for many social, educational and welfare experiments. Indians were like the miner’s canary.

The immediate impact upon the Indian children was that of being taken from their traditional homes and incarcerated in an institution where they were shorn of their long hair, dressed alike, brainwashed and separated from their traditional teachers. In other words the children were stripped of their individuality; their identity.

Stomping out the language was also a top priority. Belittling and ridiculing the traditional spirituality of the children became another goal. If they could make English the first language and convert the children to Christianity they would solve the Indian problem. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

They also had to teach the children that there were no heroes or religious leaders amongst their ancestors. They were never taught about the spiritual teachings of their traditional wicasa wakan.

Many of those who came out west to educate the Indian children were misfits. They were sent out here by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Catholic Church on a mission of killing the Indian while saving the child. Among the teachers finding their way to the Indian reservations were many that came here as a form of punishment. In the Catholic Church many came out to the reservations as a form of penance.

Among those teachers were many pedophiles. They found an easy place to prey on innocent children because we were so isolated that no one really cared what happened to us. The most prevalent form of punishment was the leather strap. After observing and receiving many severe beatings with the strap I cannot help but conclude that many of the teachers sent out west were also sadists.

Many traditional Indians came out of the boarding schools as broken children. They did not know who they were and what part they would or could play in society-at-large, or in their own reservation societies.

They returned to a world where their parents and grandparents spoke a language they could no longer understand or speak. They often felt like outcasts in their own tiospaye (camp or extended family). Shorn of hair and spirit, many turned to alcohol to dull their senses and to allow them to feel like warriors once more. Under the influence they often committed acts of violence. Many ended up in prison for crimes they could not remember committing.

Even worse, many of those who had been sexually assaulted by the teachers, priests, brothers and nuns often turned to committing the same revolting acts against their own children and family members. They became abusers themselves and the abuse took on the form of violence against spouses and children. They became a part of a society that was struggling to find itself. Those who had escaped the abuse or who rose above it became the foundation for creating a better society. They tried to find ways to save the abused and forgotten alcoholics.

Having been placed in institutions where parental ties were sliced, many of us grew up without a family peer to emulate. We were segregated by gender on the school ground and in the classrooms and so we learned little about dealing with members of the opposite sex. And beyond that, the nuns and priests who were our instructors preached to us about sex as a mortal sin.

Many of the boys and girls I grew up with came out of the Indian missions and boarding schools as victims. They entered relationships without the knowledge they should have learned from their traditional teachers; their parents and grand parents. They were surrounded by the guilt pounded into their minds by the Church and the government. The guilt of the abuse shifted to us, the children. We blamed ourselves for being abused.

As a result so many of us could not be saved. The abused could be seen walking the streets and alleys of the bordertowns and the reservations as lost people. Many were, and still are, dying from the effects of the cheap wine and drugs they took to ease their pain. The jails and prisons are overflowing with Indians. We have the shortest life expectancy of any minority in this nation.

The long-term impact of the boarding schools has not ended. There are thousands of Indian children with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and siblings who were victims of the boarding schools and who ended their lives as broken people. The historical trauma of their ancestors has been passed on through the generations. At times this historic trauma leads to the extremely high suicide rate among the children.

What can be done to bring this portion of the Indian’s history to closure? First of all, the government and the Church groups must admit that what they did was wrong. They must admit that they severely damaged several generations of Indian children with a failed and oftentimes fatal policy. And then do something about it.

The Church and state should even consider financial restitution to their victims. They did in Canada. But I believe that as long as the United States and the different Church groups refuse to admit their collaboration in one of the most shameful chapters of American history, the pain and suffering of the victims will go on and on. Solving the problem is up to us.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota and a survivor of the boarding schools, can be reached at

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