American Indian Boarding Schools: A Capitalist Horror Story

On May 11, 2022, the US Department of the Interior released a horrifying investigative report on abuses that ran rampant in the now-extinct American Indian boarding schools. From 1819 to 1969, over 400 such schools were in operation in the US. Not only were students ripped from their families, beaten, and sexually assaulted by “pious” priests and nuns, but these schools inflicted deep wounds on Native American communities that are still struggling to heal. While some seek to mend these travesties via “reconciliation” with the American government, Marxists believe that only a socialist revolution can lay the basis for genuine reparations for the genocide and oppression suffered at the hands of the capitalist state.

Native assimilation and the rise of capitalism

The development of American Indian boarding schools coincides with the rise of American capitalism. From 1609 to 1923, dozens of full-on “Indian Wars” and innumerable smaller conflicts were recorded, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Hundreds of treaties were signed, and nearly all of them were broken by the colonial, state, and federal governments.

From 1819 to 1969, students were ripped from their families, beaten, and sexually assaulted at over 400 American Indian boarding schools. / Image: Minnesota Historical Society

Prior to the Civil War, westward expansion was relatively slow but steady as Northern small farmers and Southern slave owners persistently and violently encroached on Indian lands. Many Native American populations were pushed back or physically removed to “Indian Territory,” which later became Oklahoma. In the decades after the Civil War, capitalist expansion accelerated dramatically and huge swathes of land were seized in a series of bloody wars and conflicts that stretched into the 20th century. It is in this context that assimilation became a pressing question for the US ruling class.

Although Indian schools were set up as early as 1819, the ruling class was generally content to leave Native Americans outside the realm of national life—as long as there was more land to be grabbed. As the Indian Wars wound down in the 1870s and 80s, there was nowhere else for Native Americans to go other than small reservations under the boot of the federal government. This was no accident: in order to turn the vast natural resources of the continent into profits, the American bourgeoisie required unbridled access to land previously occupied by Native American populations.

However, the American state was unsure what to do with the remaining Native population. Although they certainly tried their best in many areas, killing every last Indian would be too costly and could ignite dangerous uprisings such as the “Black War” in Tasmania, where the British exterminated the entire native population over the period of 1820–38. Instead of taking this route, the American state aimed to turn Native Americans into cheap labor for farms and industry. Eventually, they settled on the use of “education” as a tool for assimilating Native children into capitalist society. After the Civil War, Indian schools spread like wildfire throughout the country. Hundreds were opened up on and off the reservations and were often run by religious orders affiliated to the Catholic Church.

Lt. Richard Platt, architect of the first schools to assimilate Native children, chillingly stated his goal: “[that] all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.” To achieve this, children were torn from their parents as young as four years old and sent far away to these hellish institutions. Families would sometimes try to hide their children from federal agents, but the state had no qualms about withholding food rations and medicine to coerce them into compliance.

In the “schools,” children were clothed in European dress, their hair cut short, and forced to speak English exclusively. Any broken rules resulted in traumatic abuse including solitary confinement, physical beatings, hard labor, and starvation. Sexual assault was commonplace in every school. Children would often attempt to escape back home, but many would commit suicide out of sheer desperation to end the suffering.

Tuberculosis and measles ripped through the schools as children drank contaminated water and ate rancid food, froze in icy barracks during the winter, and had little access to medicine. As of now, marked and unmarked student graves have been discovered at 53 schools across the US—and the commission admitted that more such discoveries should be expected.

The instruction given in these schools included religious studies, growing food in school gardens, and military exercises. / Image: Minnesota Historical Society

The instruction given in these schools was worse than useless. Most activities included religious studies, growing food in school gardens, and military exercises such as learning to march in place. In the summer months, instead of going back home, children of all ages were leased out to local farmers as student-helpers—i.e., as slave labor to be exploited by homesteaders.

Like the Canadian Residential School system, the American state never hesitated to utilize the cruelest forms of abuse to assimilate a group of people that it deemed “in the way.” Rather than useful education, the only thing Native American children could expect to receive at these “schools” was crippling mental and physical abuse, cultural dislocation, and in countless cases, an early grave.

Ancient history?

Surely these horrors are something from a long and distant past—or are they? Off-reservation schools were commonplace until 1969, after which they suffered a long and slow decline. And although their aim is no longer assimilation, four of them remain open today. So who’s to blame for these institutions, and who’s to praise for ending them?

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii called the boarding school “era” a “dark period” in US history, adding that the federal government had “failed” Native communities. But we should not forget that these schools operated for over 150 years across 35 presidential administrations. This blows the lid off the notion that a “few bad apples” were responsible for the perpetuation of this nightmare.

Not a single government—from James Monroe to Gerald Ford—sought to end the policy of forced assimilation and brutalization. This is for a very simple reason: they were all capitalist governments administering a capitalist society that regarded Native Americans as an irritating barrier to unimpeded expansion. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Obama administration apologized for the government’s crimes—buried deep in a defense appropriations spending bill.

The boarding school system was driven into decline through mass struggle led by the American Indian Movement. / Image: University of Georgia Library

So what brought the schools crashing down? Certainly not a benevolent American capitalist state. No, the boarding school system was driven into decline through mass struggle, namely the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the late 1960s and 1970s. This was part of a more general period of struggle in American history. The civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and American Indian movements were all rooted in the revolutionary wave that rocked not only the US, but the entire globe.

AIM activists organized demonstrations, occupations—including of Alcatraz Island and Mount Rushmore—and set up their own schools in opposition to the despised boarding schools. A turning point in the struggle came in 1973, when AIM activists occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for 71 days. After weeks of hardship and shootouts with the FBI, which led to the deaths of two activists, the occupation was eventually called off. But this was a terrifying reminder to the American state that rebellion was brewing under its nose.

Under this pressure, the years that followed saw several concessions to Native American sovereignty, including the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, and the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. For the first time since the mid-19th century, Native Americans could choose whether to go to boarding schools or not.

However, despite the heroic efforts of its activists, AIM remained isolated from the rest of the American working class. In the absence of a socialist class-struggle perspective, they did not decisively break with capitalism, and were eventually “divided and conquered” by internal divisions and the capitalist state, eventually falling prey to the conservative wing of the movement. By the 1980s the state had restabilized the situation and many of AIM’s goals remained unfulfilled. Nonetheless, history wastes nothing, and the struggle produced important victories such as the death of the Indian American Boarding School system.

Revolution, not reconciliation!

Today, the true reason for the elimination of the boarding school system is distorted and forgotten. The American state wants to replicate its Canadian counterpart in making cynical amends so as to quickly forget about its centuries-long attempt at Native annihilation and assimilation.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, has said that “while we cannot change that history, I believe that our nation will benefit from a full understanding of the truth of what took place and a focus on healing the wounds of the past.”

As the inspiring events at Standing Rock showed, the only way forward is through struggle. / Image: Sacred Stone Camp, Facebook

But how will this actually help the descendants and communities that these schools purposely pried apart? As it stands today, 25% of Native Americans live under the poverty line, unemployment is as high as 69% on some reservations, and the quality of life on reservations is comparable to underdeveloped nations. How will this change, now that a study officially states what we already knew before?

As another example of the shallow limits of “reconciliation” and reparations under capitalism, in 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills in South Dakota were illegally confiscated by settlers and the government. It awarded the Sioux more than $100 million in reparations. Sioux leaders rejected the payment, however, saying that these sacred lands had never been for sale.

Why should Native workers and youth reconcile with the very enemy who enslaved, brutalized, stole from, and “assimilated” Native peoples in the first place? The American state wants to get away scot-free with hundreds of years of genocide and murder with apologies and token reparations. This is far from enough! After all, it is the capitalist system that continues to oppress and neglect Native American peoples today.

As the inspiring events at Standing Rock showed, the only way forward is through struggle. In the final analysis, only through the socialist revolution, in which workers of all backgrounds take the future of society into their hands, can Native Americans finally be free from oppression and material deprivation. Only then can real reparations be made for the countless crimes and horrors of capitalism. But this cannot be done in isolation. Only in collective struggle can the workers and oppressed of these lands win freedom from our common enemy: the American capitalists and their murderous, degenerate state. Only this can guarantee our right to choose how to live and begin the process of healing centuries of capitalist-inflicted wounds.

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