MOORHEAD — When Ricky White explains the impact Indian boarding schools had on Native American children and their descendants, he asks people to write several defining truths about themselves on a sheet of paper.
Then he grabs that paper, crumples it up and throws it in the trash can.
The image represents what Native Americans went through as the United States government tried to eradicate Indigenous culture throughout history, White said. It was like being told their way of life was garbage, he explained.
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“Their culture, their language, their identities, their ways of life, their hunting and gathering, their lands and their children was struck into and taken away from them,” White said.
The Native American from Fargo is passionate about educating people on that trauma and finding ways to better the lives of Indigenous people. He is part of a team at Concordia College that will study how boarding schools caused generational trauma. The team will also explore how to enhance Indigenous lives and opportunities in the region by studying the impacts of cultural genocide brought about by U.S. policy.
The school recently received $275,000 from the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to use over the course of three years for this venture.
In developing best practices for local delivery, White said, he wants to train those involved in providing services to Indigenous people on how the culture of Native Americans was lost and what can be done to help build trust and provide reparations.
The Mellon Foundation awarded $5 million in grant funds to be distributed among nine university and college teams around the U.S. for the Crafting Democratic Futures. Those teams will focus on researching racial justice and social equality.
Many of the teams decided to pursue reparations for Black Americans, White said, adding he was excited Concordia decided to focus on Native American issues.
Boarding schools were part of a plan to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. They were created off the reservations beginning in the late 1800s as a way to, as U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Richard Henry Pratt put it, “kill the Indian, save the man.”
Pratt, who founded one of the first federally funded American Indian boarding schools, said in a speech that his institution, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, filled “young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes." Native Americans and historians said the schools stripped away Indigenous children’s culture by forcing children to adopt a Western lifestyle.
Most non-Native American people are unaware of the history of boarding schools, said James Postema, an English professor at Concordia who is leading work on the project. The impacts of U.S. policy on Native Americans isn't taught adequately in schools, and training about it is lacking, White said.
“Again and again, my students say, 'Why have I never heard about this?'” Postema said.
White, who attended a residential school and whose father was sent to a boarding school, said trauma continues to affect Indigenous families. He said hundreds of millions of Native Americans throughout history were affected by efforts to wipe out Indigenous culture. It caused a cycle of poverty, addiction, despair and other societal problems in Native American families, he said.
“Native people are the descendants and they are the orphans … of all of those things that happened to (their ancestors),” White said.
Some Native American students Postema taught don’t know to which tribe they belong and understand little to nothing about their heritage. That is an example of the multigenerational impacts of boarding schools, he and White said.
“Other than knowing that Native Americans go to powwows and things like that, there’s just a huge void there,” Postema said.
Tribal members will guide the team of scholars and other experts who are working on this project, Concordia said. That will include historical and background research, listening sessions with Indigenous residents and forming proposals to help Native Americans, according to a news release.
“We understand that we are going to be opening wounds,” White said. “We need some healing to happen there.”
It’s too early to tell what services will be impacted, though Postema and White noted educational and other public services would likely be targets of training. The overall goal is to reach Native American students and families to make their lives better with their guidance, Postema said.
“You can’t get anyone to action unless you tug at their emotions,” White said.
Education and training is key in helping understand and respect cultural differences, he said. It also will help encourage empathy for the trauma Native Americans live with.
That way, the team can “get to the soul” of providing better outcomes, he said.
“This is going to be in the name of Native Americans,” White said. “We are looking to make a serious impact.”