Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Generational Wreckage of Boarding Schools

It was the week after Albert and Veronica Redstar, brother and sister elders of the Joseph or Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce from the Colville Reservation in Washington, talked about 140 years of exile. The audience was 45 workers and board members from Wallowa County’s government agencies and non-profits. The exile dated to the Nez Perce War of 1877, which took the Wallowa Band across the Snake River in spring flood on an unwanted journey to a reduced reservation in Idaho. An uprising of young Indians against cruel white settlers set off a war, a fighting retreat that ended five months and almost 1400 miles east and north, 40 miles from the Canadian border at Bear’s Paw, Montana. From a famous surrender there the Indians were herded to Bismarck, North Dakota, and then to Kansas and Oklahoma Indian Territory.

Eventually, through the extraordinary diplomatic efforts of their leader, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, known to us as Chief Joseph, they were allowed to return to the West, and about half of the returnees went to the Idaho reservation. Joseph was not allowed that small reward, and he and 149 followers ended up on the Colville Reservation in north central Washington with the Moses Band. Albert and Veronica are descendants of that group of Nez Perces—still in exile from their ancestral Wallowas.

Their words about loss, and the rifts and reconciliations among the people were vivid and striking. Their remaining attachment to this Wallowa Country is palpable.

They’d meant to talk some about the continuing oppressions by government agencies and officials in the 132 years they have lived on the Colville Reservation, about the government regulations regarding language, songs, music and regalia; the Allotment Act that would turn them all into yeoman farmers; about Termination and Relocation. And about Indian boarding schools. No one was sorry that they ran out of time talking about their own people, the loss on leaving and the years of displacement. I thought I could take a few minutes to address the topic at the next class.

So on the final week of our class, when Wenix Red Elk was to talk about natural resources and about the unique program on the Umatilla Reservation that ties the First Foods served in the long house to land and natural resource management, I asked that we take a few minutes at the beginning of the class to show a short video, a trailer for a longer movie, on the boarding school experience.

I found the story of Walter Littlemoon a few years ago. Walter was born the same year I was, 1942, and grew up in South Dakota, about 300 miles from my own Minnesota birthplace. I lived with parents and, during the war, with my mother and her parents. When Walter was five years old, he was taken from his parents and put in boarding school. Years and years later, Walter is the subject of a documentary called “The Thick Dark Fog,” which described the way he had long felt and became the title of his life story as he retraced it with a filmmaker.

We watched the three minutes, and Wenix, with tears in her eyes, rose to speak. She had not seen this particular video, but the experience of the boarding schools was in her bones—“We forgot how to parent,” she said, “and lost our traditional ways of bringing up children.” And not just for one generation. That loss, Wenix said, is with her people still, with her still. I don’t know but don’t think she went to a boarding school, and if she did so, it was long after severe abuses were discovered and mitigated if not corrected. But that loss is still visibly with her.

I used this video in a class I taught last year at Eastern Oregon, and students were outraged—“We did that?” they said. And I was satisfied that I had awakened something, some new kind of empathy, in them. But I missed then what Wenix felt last week. I missed the generational loss of culture, the longing that some young Indians feel today for the lessons stolen from their grandparents and great grandparents, and therefor so difficult to pass on today.

The sins of “our” fathers visited on Indian people.

Thick Dark Fog trailer

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