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Compensate for language loss.

Generational harm caused.

 

Windspeaker  -  March 1, 2004; p. 11.

 

By Paul Barnsley

Senior Staff Writer

NEW YORK, N.Y.: Two American academics have provided information in support of compensation for language and culture loss in a residential school court case in Canada.

Professor Joel Spring, a Choctaw man, teaches at the New School University and is also a visiting professor at Queen’s College at the City University of New York. Dr. George Spindler is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Stanford University and studied three American Indian cultures during his many years at Stanford. He also does some work at the University of California, Davis in Sacramento. Both provided information in the Blood Tribe of southern Alberta residential school compensation action.

During a phone interview from his Manhattan office, Dr. Spring said his research into residential schools in Haskell, Kansas and Carlyle, Pennsylvania in the United States demonstrated that the intention of the schools was not to teach but to change the social order of Native communities.

“It was even more than that, because it was an attempt to so- called ‘civilize’. That meant changing basic values with regard to the family and with regard to attitudes toward social organization. The idea was the kids would be educated in the residential schools and then they would take these values back to their tribes and the tribes would be completely reformed from the influence of the graduates of the residential schools,” said Spring..

Few graduates showed any signs of having received any useful education in the schools.

“The actual training that went on in the schools was primarily directed towards maintaining the institutions themselves. So, a lot of it was very repetitive work. The girls would be sewing clothes or mending clothes for other students, working in the laundry day after day. The boys would be doing repairs or planting crops to maintain the schools themselves. So if there was any training for trades, it was really training to maintain the institution. Any trades that were learned had to do with institutional maintenance. Those trades, like doing laundry, could be learned so quickly that they weren’t necessary after a while for educational reasons. Just for the purposes of being labor for the institutions,” he said.

Joel Spring’s evaluation of the curricula at the schools shows that the goal was not education but assimilation, a goal that academics have identified in Canadian schools as well.

“The fundamental flaw was to assume the children were just empty shells and had no basic emotions within them, emotions that were attached to family when they were ripped away. In the emotional life of an institution it was just assumed that these kids were just pawns that you could manipulate, that their emotional lives were so shallow that it wasn’t even worth considering. So the kids grew up emotionally disturbed. So the fundamental flaw was to assume that First Nations people had these primitive emotions that weren’t even worth considering. That you just take them and completely destroy their personalities and rebuild them. It couldn’t possibly work.”

Dr. Spring believes compensation for language and cultural loss is required.

“Oh, I think there is a need to address those issues. There has to be some kind of reparations.. I mean, you could draw all sorts of parallels around the world with regard to reparations, but it’s obvious it was a constant attempt by the Canadian and U.S. governments to destroy cultures, besides taking away land and all the other things,” he said.

Dr. Spindler has concluded that the normal human development of young Native people was interfered with by the school system. He said they were not able to “imprint” on their parents and their culture because of their experiences in the school. “These people that were religiously devoted really interfered with any kind of practice of Native traditional culture. Starting with the language. They were forbidden to speak their language. Language was just the start. Then it proceeded to any aspect of the Native culture. If any student tried to duplicate any Native. ceremony, for instance the ceremony that begins puberty for girls. Some students tried to carry that out surreptitiously and they were punished severely for that,” he said.

He said the schools in the U.S., like those in Canada, sought to completely destroy Native culture.

“Any vestige of the traditional culture that could be eradicated or held under control, was. What this did was to rob a whole generation of students of their own culture. And it broke the continuity of the culture very considerably. They weren’t able to pass it on to their own children as a consequence. And as a consequence Indians were on the whole robbed of their identity so that Indians hardly knew who they were. This has been recovered to some extent over the last 30 or 40 years but it has left its mark forever. And we know that people that have their identities robbed don’t really do very well. .They’re not able to co-ordinate their activities or marshal their energies appropriately and as a consequence, they fail,” he said.

Residential school survivors in both countries say they were un able to be effective parents be cause they had received no parenting. That in turn passed the damage on to the next generation.

“Not just the next generation but for generations to come long after the first generation to experience it. This kind of damage cannot be undone. It is a permanent kind of thing. One wonders what can be done now? But certainly there are ways to make it possible for people to recover some of their traditional culture,” Spindler said. “Maybe they can, recover a sense of cultural identity from that.”

The renowned anthropologist also believes language and culture loss should be compensated.

“There are damages owed by the white population as a whole: I mean there is such a thing as collective guilt, I think. Particularly, in a case like this where the prejudices were deeply buried in Anglo culture and the people more or less approved  of taking children away from their parents and putting them in boarding schools and keeping them in there for maybe 10 years. I certainly would agree that Indians have a case and they should pursue it.”

 

Paul Barnsley

Senior Writer

 


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