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The Lasting Impact of Native American Residential Schools

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Recently, the bodies of Indigenous children were discovered lying in unmarked graves at former Residential School sites in Canada. This tragic discovery begs multiple questions: Why did this happen? What exactly happened to Indigenous youth at the hundreds of similar residential schools in the United States?  Why isn’t this history taught in most U.S. school history classrooms? What does this mean for Indigenous people today?

TEACHERS: Guide your students to practice civil discourse about current topics and get practice writing CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) responses. Explore lesson supports.

What Are Residential Schools?

Boarding schools (also referred to as Residential schools, and more recently, assimilation camps) were institutions run by the federal government and churches within Canada and the United States with the intention of absorbing Indigenous peoples into dominant Western culture, by displacing them from their culture. Between the late 1800s through the late 1970s, most prominently, Indigenous children were forcibly and violently removed from their families to attend these Residential Schools, with some Native families even being coerced by the federal government and the Catholic Church into reluctantly handing their children over. During this time there were over 350 schools operating within the United States. By 1920, there were 20,000 children attending the schools, with the number tripling by just 1925

How Was Assimilation Carried Out? 

Although survivors of this deeply unsettling history report varied experiences, the shared attitude toward Residential Schools is one of mostly unanimous disgust and bone-chilling fear.


Children lived a daily nightmare: Staff and teachers physically, psychologically, and sexually abused them. In addition to being neglected and starved, children were brutally disciplined if they were caught speaking their native language. Their clothing and belongings were removed and swapped for ordinary Western clothes, and their hair–which is a symbol of pride and one’s connection to the Earth for many Indigenous cultures–was cut. Everything about this new environment was meant to teach the children that they were inferior.  Some engendered a deep loathing for their indigeneity, others became even more determined to trace back their roots. But for many, the cultural dissonance this era created has continued to impact Indigenous people today via intergenerational trauma. 

What is intergenerational trauma?

“A phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself. These reactions vary by generation but often include shame, increased anxiety and guilt, a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness, low self-esteem, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, dissociation, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, difficulty with relationships and attachment to others, difficulty in regulating aggression, and extreme reactivity to stress. The exact mechanisms of the phenomenon remain unknown but are believed to involve effects on relationship skills, personal behavior, and attitudes and beliefs that affect subsequent generations. Also called “historical trauma; multigenerational trauma; secondary traumatization.” (American Psychological Association, https://dictionary.apa.org/intergenerational-trauma)

What is Truth and Reconciliation?

The truth and reconciliation approach is a form of restorative justice, which differs from the customary adversarial or retributive justice. Retributive justice aims to find fault and punish the guilty. On the other hand, restorative justice aims to heal relationships between offenders, victims, and the community in which an offense takes place. 

The Indigenous Millennials and Gen Z youth of today seem more tenacious than ever to reconnect with their cultures, as many flood to decolonize both the physical and digital spaces they occupy. There is a push from this demographic to demand accountability from the very systems responsible for committing this harm. This looks like many things–a formal acknowledgment, #LandBack, culturally competent curriculum in schools that properly explain this atrocity from the lens of Indigenous Peoples, and the request for allyship from non-Indigenous folks. Above all, many are learning to heal as they learn more about their histories, about their cultural lifeways. Doing so is an act of resistance; it tells the oppressors that they did not win. This is a movement we can certainly expect to see more of.


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