When news broke last month that the remains of at least 215 children had been found at what was once Canada’s largest residential school, in the country’s westernmost province, many began wondering whether the discovery was just the tip of the iceberg. South of the Canadian border, hundreds and perhaps thousands of children are believed to have died in church- and government-run residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. The conventional thinking among white settlers was that native people needed to be reformed, modernized and educated, and that a Christian education would put all that in place; in practice, whole cultures were wiped out. Decades on, it remains a horrifying and still-unreconciled issue for Indigenous communities across the U.S. and Canada. And with two churches on Indigenous land in Canada burned down using liquid accelerants yesterday, controversy is set to rumble on.
But the forced “re-education” of Indigenous communities is by no means solely a North American experience: Almost everywhere colonialists have set foot, efforts to indoctrinate local populations to the European way of living — and thinking — have been front and center.
Today, we look at how these past wrongs are increasingly coming to light, the voices demanding accountability and, importantly, how some countries are working to promote Indigenous education and culture.
Charu Sudan Kasturi & Kate Bartlett, Senior Editors
While Canada has attempted to address the horrific legacy of its Indigenous boarding schools, authorities in America have made no such move. In 2017, the bodies of three boys who had died at Pratt’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School were excavated, sparking fresh calls for a thorough investigation into practices at the boarding schools. But while Canada shut its state-funded residential schools for First Nations children in 1996, the federal government in the U.S. continues to run four such schools. However, today these schools aren’t theaters of coercion the way they once were. But they are clear reminders of festering wounds that — like in Canada — could explode and force America to grapple with a chapter of its past that many appear to want to forget.
Beijing loves pointing fingers at systemic racism in the West whenever it faces criticism over its human rights record. But when it comes to using education to Sinicize ethnic minorities, the Chinese Communist Party is following Pratt’s example pretty closely. For decades, it tried to mold Uyghurs and Tibetans through demographic changes, crackdowns on their culture and violence. But much like the U.S. during the 19th century, it has concluded that there are alternative ways to get what it wants: In 2019, as it detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghur adults in internment camps, Beijing sent the children left behind to state-run boarding schools. Over the past two years, China has dramatically ramped up a similar program in provinces with Tibetan populations, taking children away to schools in other parts of the country. At these schools — called neidi in Mandarin — they’re cut off from their people and cultural context.
If you’ve seen the award-winning film Rabbit-Proof Fence, you’ll have garnered a sense of just how terrible the history of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” is, and seen that the wounds still run deep Down Under today. From the beginning of the 20th century through to the 1970s, tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were ripped from their families and placed in institutions and foster homes, where many suffered neglect, or, worse, terrible abuse. Colonial policies focused on “assimilation” were put in place so that Indigenous people would “die out” and become part of “civilized” white society. They were forbidden from speaking Indigenous languages and their names were changed.
3. Brazil and Colombia
On a continent where the Catholic Church played a vital and disturbing role in colonization, its denominations were also central to 20th-century efforts to use education to indoctrinate Indigenous children and to sever the intergenerational transfer of cultural knowledge. In Colombia, the government supported multiple Catholic orders that established boarding schools where Indigenous children were taken at the age of 5 and barred from speaking their languages, wearing traditional clothing or visiting their families. A Jesuit order in Brazil ran a similar school for children of the Manoki community, again prohibiting them from speaking their native language. In both countries, Indigenous children were encouraged to intermarry with other communities when they grew up — and were at times even paid if they did so.
Dinesh Majhi remembers mornings at school well. He and his fellow classmates from the 62 Adivasi (which means “original inhabitants” in Hindi) communities in eastern India’s Odisha state would queue up in neat lines and, when instructed, start brushing their teeth vigorously. At the time, it seemed like a funny ritual. Today, it angers Majhi, who is a teacher in New Delhi. “They were basically trying to ‘teach us’ to be clean,” he tells OZY with a hollow laugh. Majhi attended Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, the world’s largest boarding school, with 33,000 students. KISS promises “inclusive education” and claims its aim is to “uplift” India’s Adivasi communities, which have a collective population in excess of 100 million people. But independent researchers have argued that KISS is a 21st-century version of the “civilizational” mission that Pratt and his colleagues once attempted. And it’s only one of thousands of Adivasi boarding schools that still operate across India.
The children of Indigenous San people, also known as Bushmen, often live in remote communities, and the government provides schools with hostels for their children so they can get an education. However, the institutions, known as Remote Area Dweller Hostels, have come under criticism for failing to teach the students their native languages and for the fact that “the idea of separating parents and children are foreign to San culture and the pain and alienation that San students feel at boarding schools can be acute,” according to a U.N. report. The result is that a lot of San children are deprived of any cultural knowledge and drop out.
voices for change
1. Canada’s Nakuset
If the Nazis deserved to be tried at Nuremberg for the Holocaust, why shouldn’t Canada face similar accountability for its centuries of genocide against Indigenous communities? That’s the question First Nations activist Nakuset is posing after the discovery of the remains of the 215 children in Kamloops. She was separated from her sister as a child under a set of policies known as the Sixties Scoop, which allowed authorities to pick up Indigenous children and place them in foster care, from where white families could adopt them. Now, she wants the Canadian government to stand trial for its crimes.
2. Australia’s Greens
In 2008, then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic apology to the Aboriginal people, with May 26 now deemed “National Sorry Day.” But was it enough? There has long been talk of reparations, and while some state governments have introduced compensation schemes, there have been no payments at the federal level. In April, 800 Indigenous people who were either forcibly removed from their families or are descendents of those who were, brought a class action suit against Canberra, seeking compensation. Last month, the Greens, an opposition party, urged the federal government to allow reparations that would see about $200,000 given to each member of the Stolen Generations nationally.
3. Brazil’s Ana Paula Ferreira De Lima
She’s making sure Brazil doesn’t get away with educational discrimination just because it no longer has schools like the one Jesuits once ran for the Manoki community. The country’s Indigenous communities constitute 0.5% of Brazil’s population, but 30% of its out-of-school children. The lack of public transportation to schools is a key reason. Ferreira De Lima trains young Indigenous girls to speak up for their rights and empowers them to advocate for their demands with lawmakers. It’s working. FUNDEB, a government fund meant to support schools in marginalized communities, was supposed to wind up in December. But pressure from groups led by Ferreira De Lima ensured that the Brazilian Senate approved a constitutional amendment to make the fund permanent.
4. Czech Republic’s Magdalena Karvayova
As shocking as it is in 2021, many Roma children in schools across Europe attend segregated schools, where they receive a subpar education. Not only that, some countries place Roma students in remedial classes for pupils with disabilities. These policies are widespread in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In the latter, Karvayova, a Roma activist who was given a U.S. human rights award in 2018, is trying to fix the inequality in the education system by advocating for Roma inclusion in mainstream schools. Though she now holds a law degree, Karvayova experienced discrimination as a younger student in school, where she was told she’d be better off with her “own race.”
On many a Cape Town street these days, you can find the Sackcloth people: dreadlocked men dressed in sackcloth selling medicinal herbs gathered on the mountains and meant to heal all kinds of ills. Long relegated to the periphery by the mainstream, Indigenous South African people have a vast knowledge of biodiversity and the environment, and one program, called Inkcubeko Nendalo, is seeking to take that expertise to schools, where the focus until recently has been on Western scientific knowledge. Now, Indigenous elders are being sent to speak to students, and local ecological knowledge is being integrated into curriculums.
3. Aadharshila, India
But residential schools don’t have to follow the Pratt model. In a remote part of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, educator couple Amit and Jayashree run one of the country’s most revolutionary schools. The pair has lived among the region’s Adivasi for more than two decades. And Aadharshila Learning Centre, the school they run, reflects their deep understanding of the communities they’re working with. The curriculum marries traditional Adivasi knowledge systems with the latest tech advances. Students perform theater, produce their own newspaper and podcasts, cultivate crops and help manage the school. Teaching is conducted in the local Bareli language. And older students regularly teach classes of younger students — keeping alive the tradition of oral transfer of knowledge that’s intrinsic to Indigenous communities.
For centuries, Christian missionaries in Samiland, an area that stretches over parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, put “heathen” Sami children in boarding schools, with many later saying they had experienced trauma in the institutions. Now, the three Scandinavian countries are trying to atone for the historical injustices against the Arctic Indigenous people, setting up a project to see how Sami children at the preschool level can be best taught in a way that reinforces their native languages and cultural knowledge. Ol-Johan Sikku, one of the project leaders in Norway, explained why the effort is so important, saying: “Our children are educated in a dominant culture that’s not our own.”