Native Americans want compensation
- Native Americans to demand compensation
By Marty Logan
The Final Call
May 24, 2004
UNITED NATIONS (IPS/GIN) - The policy was to "kill the Indian and
keep the man."
The aim of a boarding school system established by U.S. officials in
the 19th century was to assimilate Native American children into the
dominant White society, speakers told a panel discussion at the UN
Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on May 12.
That meant forbidding their languages, clothing, hair stylestheir
culture, in factusing as much violence as was needed, they said.
And now they are demanding restitution on their own terms.
"Under international human rights law, the U.S. is still accountable
for any continuing effects," which include the loss of indigenous
languages and the violence that today permeates many Indian
communities, said Andrea Smith from the University of Michigan at Ann
She and other women have started the Boarding School Healing Project
(BSHP), which has four main goals: heal the schools' victims; educate
people about the attempted genocide of the Native American; document
how that process worked, and build a movement that will demand
compensation from the U.S. government.
The residential school system began with president Ulysses Grant's
1869 "Peace Policy" and continued well into the 20th century, taking
100,000 Native American children from their homes to live and study
in Christian boarding schools.
Students, as young as two years of age, were placed in the schools
until the age of 18, many returning home speaking a different
language (English) than when they left. Many were also physically and
"Some of my peers committed suicide, some drank themselves to death,
some died violent deaths. They don't know how many were abused, but
one thing we know: the oppressed became the oppressors when they
returned home," said one former student quoted in a short film about
a similar school system established in Canada on the U.S. model.
Among its impacts, the boarding school system in both countries
implanted forms of violence in native communities that still exact a
high cost today, said speakers at the UN.
"Sometimes I have to say I'm sorry to my children, because I have
behaved in the way the missionaries, the education of the residential
schools, made us," said Eulynda Benalli of the Crownpoint Institute
of Technology on the Navajo Nation in the U.S. state of New Mexico.
Among their impacts, the boarding schools replaced traditional
practices performed by women with patriarchal systems, which led to
the "devaluing of native women in our communities," said Ms. Smith.
The chairman of the Permanent Forum told the opening session of the
annual meeting that Indigenous men worldwide must do more to stem
domestic violence and ensure gender equality in their communities.
"Indigenous cultures rely on gender complementarity, a symbiosis that
values both women's and men's business, that affirms both with
respect and balance," added Ole Henrik Magga.
The Permanent Forum, the only full-time UN body devoted to indigenous
issues, meets until May 21, and focuses this year on Indigenous women.
During the two-week session, its 16 members will hear dozens of
submissions on human rights, environment, education, culture,
economic and social development and health, from some 1,500 delegates.
An advisory body only, the forum's recommendations will go to the UN
Economic and Social Council, which will decide which will be
forwarded to September's General Assembly of all UN member states.
While the Boarding School Healing Project is just starting, a group
of indigenous people on Canada's west coast have nearly finished an
eight-year process to help heal their communities.
The native people of Haida Gwaii, officially known as the Queen
Charlotte Islands, have repatriated the remains of more than 400 of
their ancestors who were stolen from their graves for study in the
19th and 20th centuries and then stored in museums throughout North
America and beyond.
The Haida, who number about 4,000 people on their islands off the
coast of British Columbia, taught students to make blankets
and "bentwood" boxes from the cedar trees of their temperate
rainforests for each set of remains, which were then buried in a
special ceremony, the most recent on May 8.
After contact with White settlers, many Haida were sent to
residential schools, while their land, sometimes called the "Canadian
Galapagos" for its unique flora and fauna, was logged and mined
without their permission.
"Germ warfare" nearly wiped out a population that may have reached
30,000 at one point in the past, says Andy Wilson of the Haida
Repatriation Committee. The 1915 census counted just 588 Haida.
Repatriation "was a way to say, `were not taking this any more and
anything that you took from us, we're here to take back.'" Someone
said at the May 8 burial ceremony, talking about the repatriation
committee, that all the respect and honor they showed the ancestors
helped start the healing.
Ms. Smith said the BSHP would discuss how to take the United States
to account for the continuing damage to Indigenous communities caused
by the boarding schools. The options include approaching the school
system as a violation of international human rights or as a legal
wrong, to be put right in a U.S. court.
Unlike in Canada, though, the group will not recommend that
individuals receive compensation from the government. "We want to
approach this from a sovereignty framework, because what has happened
has happened to us as a whole people," Ms. Smith said.
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